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COMMENTARY | A new report provides a dozen lessons learned from Covid-19 that can help governments at all levels deal with diseases and natural disasters to come.
The last eighteen months, since Covid-19 began to lay siege to the world, have been a time of tragedy, with about 700,000 lives lost in the United States alone. It’s difficult to envision any silver linings to this horror show of disease and death.
But there is one—even though it’s far from making up for the pain produced by the pandemic: Governments at all levels can take this opportunity to learn lessons from this crisis that will help to avoid many of the mistakes made over the last year and a half.
As the oft-repeated mantra goes, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Today, the IBM Center for the Business of Government is releasing a report, titled Managing the Next Crisis: Twelve Principles for Dealing with Viral Uncertainty that provides a series of guidelines to help mitigate future disasters including hurricanes, wildfires, massive cyberattacks and the inevitable deaths resulting from neglected infrastructure. The report goes beyond pointing to broad principles, and includes actionable measures that should and could be taken.
The principles sited are not political in nature. They focus on the idea that good management and actionable policies can help leaders solve–instead of fight over–most of the issues that confront the federal government, states and localities.
Written by Donald Kettl, a renowned scholar in the realm of public administration and professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and the two of us, the report focuses on three critical imperatives for managing through the pandemic and preparing for the future:
- Building partnerships with key organizations in the public, private and nonprofit sectors.
- Managing networks needed to drive such partnerships to overcome challenges, through improving operations and service delivery.
- Steering outcomes across networks that lead to well-understood and measurable improvements in the health and well-being of the public.
Here are the 12 principles upon which the report is based:
1. Local governments inevitably sit on the frontlines in responding to a crisis, but the federal government plays a critical role in coordinating responses because when one community is under siege, others may soon follow.
2. The federal government can help lead the charge against a widespread crisis, but its primary responsibility often involves obtaining buy-in from and coordinating the efforts of states, counties and cities.
3. Data is key to understanding a problem well enough to develop a solution. But the various players responding to a crisis must be able to communicate with one another using consistent terms, definitions and methodology for the data.
4. Solutions to many major crises, from wildfires to hurricanes to the pandemic, require assets like hoses, sandbags, masks and vaccines. Central coordination for their procurement prevents the various players involved from competing against one another, which can lead to higher prices and unnecessary shortages.
5. The pandemic demonstrated an increasing shortage of the necessary personnel to deal with a health care crisis. The nation must develop better means for growing the next generation of experts in multiple fields who can serve in times of need.
6. Technology is a central element to solving most modern problems, though not the only element. Artificial intelligence can help governments to better understand problems and form solutions.
7. Unlikely events that have high-potential consequences still require preparation. Risk management can help weigh the odds and spell out plans for future calamities.
8. When addressing a major crisis, organizing all the participants trying to respond is necessary. Unfortunately, these kinds of networks must be consciously formed—they do not come together spontaneously.
9. When many people face great risk, they must trust those who lead response and recovery—or those interventions are severely impeded.
10. States and localities often help find solutions by trying a variety of different approaches to solving a problem. But ignoring the lessons learned across the states makes their experiments less productive.
11. For the United States to progress, the population as a whole must be treated fairly. The pandemic revealed that without addressing social and economic inequities, disasters will harm huge segments of the population disproportionately—and that, in turn, can unravel the fabric of society.
12. Holding institutions and individuals accountable helps ensure responsible actions. This requires knowing exactly how to define and measure success.
Careful Action Needed Going Forward
Do we believe that these principles would have somehow magically stopped the pandemic in its tracks? No. The paper argues, instead, that the numbers of deaths “would most likely have been substantially smaller than what the nation experienced.”
For example, very basic rules for procurement discussed in the section of the report that focuses on principle No. 4 might easily have made it possible for more ventilators, masks and other medical gear to be made available when they were most needed. Instead, as the pandemic was in its earliest stages, the Associated Press described the state of affairs as a “a fragmented procurement system now descending into chaos.”
The report warns that without careful caution, governments may be on the verge of wasting this opportunity. The race back to “normal” may move hard issues and lessons into the background—understandable given the natural human tendency to forget many painful memories.
Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of Barrett and Greene, Inc. are columnists and senior advisers to Route Fifty.
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