Community Resilience: Doing Better at Figuring Out Who Does What | LBJ School of Public Affairs | The University of Texas at Austin

By Donald F. Kettl

In looking back over America's response to COVID-19 thus far, it's impossible to sidestep an awful, troubling fact: At a time of clear and present danger, we had the wrong strategies of governance for the crisis at hand.

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The core of the problem lies in our system of federalism. Too many decisions drifted to the wrong places, to dangerous effect. There could be no greater irony that, while millions of Americans turned on Disney+ over the Fourth of July weekend to watch "Hamilton," a celebration of the nation's founding, the system that Hamilton helped create was collapsing under COVID's weight.

At 46.48 deaths per 100,000 population, the fatality rate in the U.S. is the fourth highest in the world, trailing just the United Kingdom, Peru, and Chile, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center. The virus has cut a fearful swath, but there's powerful evidence that it might have been contained had the government not failed to do what had to be done.

"COVID lays bare an unfortunate truth: We had the wrong system of governance when we needed it most. But there are important lessons we can learn, both to do better in the coming months and to prepare ourselves better for the big challenges of governing across a host of other challenges we'll be facing." —Donald F. Kettl

 

Americans have long celebrated their system of federalism, which spreads power across its federal, state, and local governments. The Trump administration found it convenient to pass key decisions along to governors and, indeed, it would have been unwieldy to try to run everything from Washington. Some on the left have been grateful that the Trump team allowed some governors to step up and lead the response.

The debate about which levels of government are responsible for which policies has been going on for a long time. James Madison wrote about it in Federalist 51 in 1788, and theorists have been at it ever since. But, at its core, the sad fact is this: America's brand of federalism crippled the nation's response to the virus. Compared to the world's other major federal systems, the U.S. has done dramatically worse by almost every metric. Check out this chart. Not only is the fatality rate in the U.S. higher than in any other federal system, it's twice as high as in Canada and Switzerland, and four times higher than in Germany.

Source: Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center

It's going to take some time to sort out which strategies have proven most effective in those other countries, because the conditions are so different in each. It's clear that in a country as vast in geography and population as the U.S., devolving some important operational decisions to the level of governors and mayors was both inevitable and wise. But it's also very clear that the nation's response was crippled from the start by the federal government's failure to take a stronger role.

The core of the problem lies in our system of federalism. Too many decisions drifted to the wrong places, to dangerous effect.

Here are five areas where federal leadership would have made a big difference:

Measuring

  • Defining the problem. Federal leaders were in a unique position to define the problem authoritatively for the nation, which analysts have pointed out is a hallmark of effective leadership. Instead, they failed to acknowledge the utter seriousness of COVID-19, downplaying it for weeks as not much more than a seasonal flu. Then they couldn't decide what kind of problem it was: an assault on public health or a challenge to the economy? Actually, it's both, so they also failed to decide which to prioritize.
  • Blocking the spread. Instead of quashing the dispute about COVID-19's seriousness and putting forth a plan of action, the federal government failed to send clear signals about what should be done about it. In retrospect, its advice in the early days to not wear masks turned out to be bad, although it was based on the best science at the time—and on the recognition that masks were in very short supply. But even as it became clear that masks were an effective first line of defense, the mixed messages continued, feeding a deep polarization on that and most other COVID-19 issues. This encouraged non-mask-wearing customers to have meltdowns in megastores and even led to armed protests in state houses. Federal leaders missed their best chance to slow the virus by failing to provide clear messages about what would work best to stop it.
  • Tracking the problem. The American response was further crippled by the failure to create a single language with which everyone could speak about COVID. Different states collected and reported different data sets, and some states even reported the same data differently over time. Kansas began reporting its count only on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, while in Texas long lags between hospitalizations and hospitalization reports made it hard to gauge what was happening. In Florida, there was a major spat about the state’s dashboard. Dashboards run by Johns Hopkins and the University of Washington became the go-to sources for information because government reporting was so inconsistent. Major newspapers became so frustrated that they created their own data systems. If the federal government had created and maintained a vocabulary that everyone could understand and use, our conversation might have been a lot less contentious.

Allocating

  • Managing scarce resources. As the virus ramped up, state officials scrambled to track down vital supplies, from ventilators to personal protective equipment. Both Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker and California Governor Gavin Newsom complained that bidding wars among the states created a "wild west" situation that advantaged manufacturers and their distributors and hurt citizens. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said he said he thought he had a deal for PPE only to find that "FEMA came out and bought it all out from under us." It's one thing for the governments of American federalism to compete for the best policy innovations, but it makes no sense for them to battle against each other for medical supplies. Federal leaders should have bargained for the best prices for the equipment and sent it where it was needed the most.

Resilient communities need to build on a robust federal system, as there are some things that only the federal government can do. That's a critical lesson to learn from COVID-19.

Leveling

  • Preventing and redressing inequities. The dark underbelly of COVID-19 is that it has hit communities of color most fiercely. After adjusting for age differences, the mortality rate for Black Americans is 2.1 times more than for White Americans. The virus has struck especially hard in communities that have less access to health care and whose members perform frontline work. Federal leaders could have been in a strong position to gauge this problem and devise strategies to attack it. Instead they punted, allowing COVID-19 to become a scourge that hit the hardest at the most defenseless.

As I noted in a blog post, "big national crises have local roots; all problems with local roots require effective local response; effective local responses demand an interconnected strategy; and an interconnected strategy depends on resilient communities." But resilient communities need to build on a robust federal system, as there are some things that only the federal government can do. That's a critical lesson to learn from COVID-19—and one that's been very painfully taught.

 

Donald F. Kettl is the Sid Richardson Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin and author of The Divided States of America (Princeton University Press, 2020). An earlier version of this piece appeared in a blog for the IBM Center for the Business of Government.