What Lessons Can Public Administrators Learn From the COVID-19 Response?

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By: Matthew L. Howell, Ph.D., associate professor, EKU Department of Government

As the United States continues to address the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many lessons public administrators can learn from the response.  One day, a very good book will be written about the early days of the pandemic response and the decisions and mistakes made.  Sometime after that, a second book will be written which gets the story right.  Decisions are made in a maelstrom of information, irrelevant data, and policy constraints; and it is almost always misguided to seek explanations for policy failure solely in the actions of politicians.  The lesson we should learn is that policy decisions are a group activity in the American system and understanding how the collective dynamic guides decisions can explain policies that otherwise make little sense.

As an example, consider the shutting down of the U.S. economy in the early days of the virus.  On March 16, President Donald Trump asked for Americans to close schools and businesses for 15 days to control the spread of COVID-19.  As of October 1, the U.S. had spent 199 days in some form of lock down.  To understand why, analysts must ignore the top-down vision of policy that is the common policy model.  In top-down, the President says shut down for 15 days, and at the end of 15 days, the President says re-open and everyone does those things.  But reality does not comply.  The President can say whatever he wants; the decision to shut down is made by 50 state governments, themselves divided across legislatures, executives, and the people of the states who must agree to stay home.  As the summer protests demonstrate — large numbers of people violating shutdown orders cannot be stopped by words on a governor’s letterhead.

Scores of people in public and private life had to agree to certain steps to shift the United States from its pre-COVID way of life to its post-COVID way of life.  In policy there are many theories of what would coordinate that action — in this case news reports of skyrocketing cases and the Imperial College forewarning of millions of deaths probably scared everyone enough for each person to decide to shut down, an explanation consistent with Punctuated Equilibrium Theory. The problem arises 199 days later when each of these people must also decide how to release the shutdowns, and there is no signal to coordinate.  Those who wanted to lock down for any reason 200 days ago have what they wish, and no need to change their mind if they still wish to lock down. Those who only wanted to lock down for 15 days discover belatedly, that while in alliance with the former lock down, they need the assent of those locking down to undo the lockdown. 

People and politicians could be scared into their homes -but there is nothing to scare them back out.  Politicians say they want to follow the science, but there is no scientific threshold at which it is safe to come out. “Safe“ is a political concept, not a scientific one.  We are looking for something that makes everyone feel safe –not something that makes people safe.  This is how “15 days” became “until summer” and eventually became “until a vaccine.”  These are not scientific thresholds; they are political ones which measure roughly when politicians feel it is safe — whether it is safe or not.

In the absence of consensus among all players, policy in the United States does not change.  Normally, the lesson policy analysts draw from this is to look for things, often news events, that can motivate politicians to agree long enough to act.  At that point, the difficulty of changing policy in the US dominates.  There is nothing more permanent than a temporary government policy.  COVID-19 demonstrates equally well the reason policymakers resist making temporary changes, even when there is very good reason and proper motivation to do so.

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