The Role of Public Administration in Handling COVID-19

EKU Online > The Role of Public Administration in Handling COVID-19

Public administrators have a hard job.  Those who mock government work as inefficient or useless do not appreciate the difficulty involved in making decisions for communities, states and the nation at large, particularly in unprecedented situations when information is scarce.  The response to COVID-19 has showcased exactly how hard public administration is -even if at the same time it showed how ill-prepared public administrators, public health, and government officials were for a pandemic.

Pandemic Response Foundations

According to the Center for Disease Control’s 2005 Pandemic Response Plan (produced by the Homeland Security Council) and the 2017 update from Health and Human Services, there is very little any one government could do in response to a pandemic.  Pandemic response is an inherently local and decentralized task.  The disease targets one but misses another, moving in waves, it is seasonal, and will not be responsive to interventions. 

Furthermore, the majority of things affected by diseases (individual health, supply chains, critical infrastructure) are not public sector controlled.  Decisions made by doctors and hospitals, trucking companies, and manufacturers will have much more influence on pandemic outcomes; but these are not decisions that public administration is able to make.  Medicine is a personalized, not a bureaucratic enterprise; logistics relies heavily on local conditions and knowledge; and command and control economies have a poor history of responding to natural disasters.

The Government’s Role

So, if the government is not going to treat the sick, move materials, or make vaccines -what is its role?  It is the far harder task of gathering information and distributing it, coordinating activities that can’t be handled by markets, and maintaining the institutions necessary to let doctors, industry, and local communities fight back against the pandemic.  The CDC specifically called for the Federal Government to:

  • support containment efforts
  • serve as a clearinghouse for information and guidance
  • modify laws and regulations to respond to the pandemic
  • modify monetary policy to deal with the economic dislocations
  • stockpile and distribute vaccines and antivirals
  • accelerate R&D of vaccines and therapies

Notably, these are all activities that are public goods, with no market for them, and so government handles them.  They are also in conflict with each other.  As the pandemic response plans show, attempts to contain a disease will interfere with maintaining the economy, slowing down R&D.  Stockpiling medicines and modifying laws will create the very dislocations modifying monetary policy is intended to reverse.  The section on border closures is a miracle of double speak wherein closing borders and ports may slow the disease, but also shouldn’t be done because the economic dislocations are too high, and closing ports doesn’t work because the disease will get in anyway (it being functionally impossible to completely isolate the United States).

How Things Played Out

These tasks are all very hard; and call for wisdom and creativity in balancing all the competing concerns and needs for responding to a pandemic emergency.  As the COVID 19 pandemic took hold, troubling  doubletalk was joined by vague goals about using the “best available data” and broken hyperlinks to non-existent pre-pandemic planning guidelines. 

Public administration officials -elected and appointed -needed to have made decisions for how much to spend on these public goods and how to balance these competing needs in advance of the COVID-19 pandemic.  They did not.  Despite health and human services (HHS) receiving increased funding every year from 2005 to 2019, pandemic preparedness received less money over time as Medicare and Medicaid Services gradually absorbed higher and higher shares of HHS’s budget. 

The Trump administration launched Operation Warp Speed -focusing on accelerating R&D for new vaccines, modified laws and regulations in response to the pandemic. Operation Warp Speed supported Congress in passing monetary and fiscal relief packages. However, much of the response to containment and mitigation, public guidance, and treatment was improvised and winged.  Guidance changed frequently, as did recommended treatment protocols and what was stockpiled and what was not.  Even the handful of clear provisions in the 2005 plans -keep businesses open and operating even if only 60% of the workforce is healthy, having businesses make essential/non-essential worker decisions, use masks only if symptomatic -were ignored or blown up by stay-at-home orders, centralization of decisions at state and federal levels, and mandates.

In conclusion, the ultimate lesson of COVID-19 is that public administration is hard, it requires talented people to do it well. Planning and talent are not enough if the plans are vague, not followed to begin with, or if the administrators decide to freelance outside their area of competence.

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By: Dr. Matthew Howell, associate professor in the Department of Government

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