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Pandemic lessons: Building partnerships, managing networks and steering outcomes

Lessons learned from the pandemic can shape the way governments at all levels handle future crises, a new report finds.

In “Managing The Next Crisis: Twelve Principles For Dealing With Viral Uncertainty,” an October report from the IBM Center for The Business of Government, three experts in government performance group the 12 principles into three categories: building partnerships, managing networks and steering outcomes.

One of those principles is the need for “a language to talk about crises in general, and the language really comes down to data,” said Katherine Barrett, a report coauthor and cofounder of the Government Performance Project with her husband, Richard Greene. Speaking during an recent webinar discussing the report, she said that questions about the pandemic could have been more effectively answered with better data systems, but the federal government just didn’t have such systems.

For instance, everyone responding to a crisis needs to have the same definitions of what the data means, consistent methodologies, consistency in labeling and data to understand how the crisis is affecting different demographics and populations. When those four elements aren’t in place, lives are at risk. Had other state and local governments followed Seattle’s strict lockdown policies to control COVID’s spread based on data tracking and scientific evidence, 300,000 lives could have been saved, according to a New York Times article that the report cites.

Another lesson learned related to the inequities that the pandemic exposed. It “may have been the biggest petri dish to expose the bacterium that have riddled through the country since Reconstruction,” said co-author Greene.

This was another data failure, he added, because many state governments didn’t track COVID’s impact on minority populations. It wasn’t until Johns Hopkins University researchers disaggregated their copious data that patterns emerged to show how hard-hit communities of color were.

Data can also inform new strategies to build expertise in risk management, said Don Kettl, professor emeritus, former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and a report coauthor. “One of the things that we discovered along the way was that artificial intelligence and predictive analytics can really have a powerful, powerful role in trying to shape this,” Kettl said.

The report points to the work of physician and heath economist Christopher Murray from the University of Washington to forecast “the likely spread of the disease and how different assumptions of COVID’s course would affect different states.” It also cites an independent data scientist’s effort to use machine learning to forecast the return to normalcy.

Dustin Brown, deputy assistant director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, said the pandemic has highlighted the need for optimizing horizontally and vertically across government. “How do we make sure that the traditional silos of government aren’t getting in the way of the whole-of-government solutions that are often needed to deal with a crisis?” Brown asked.

He cited the working group on reentry and the future of work convened by the Presidential Management Council, composed of high-ranking officials at 24 agencies, as an example of successful interagency collaboration. It meets weekly to ensure that the federal government doesn’t fall into “past traps,” he said, such as developing a property requiring onsite work by one area and a telework policy by another.

Optimizing vertically is about opening feedback channels that let information flow not just top-down but also bottom-up. Brown lauded the first pulse survey of all 2 million federal workers that the council, along with the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration, took in October as a good way for leaders to get real-time feedback from employees.

“Having a way of updating our policies and practices on a real-time basis based on the feedback that we’re getting and providing guardrails for decisions that can be delegated to the lowest appropriate levels in the organizations to provide maximum flexibility for defining workforce requirements to meet mission and workforce needs is such an important principle,” Brown said.

Among government’s failings was a bright spot: rapid innovation, noted Tim Paydos, vice president of IBM Government Industry Solutions. “I think government leaders surprised themselves with how quickly they could innovate,” Paydos said. “We saw 10 years’ worth of innovation in about a two-year period.”

Governance was often an afterthought in the frenzy to meet needs, he added, so now the issue is how to maintain that flexibility while adding in the governance.

These challenges speak to what the report authors named the first lesson from the health crisis: Recognize that crises begin as local events, and localities’ response can vary dramatically.

“The pandemic called out for a cohesive response, and not for go-it-alone federalism,” Barrett said. “It needed the federal government to take a strong role in developing strategy and coordinating what was happening because crises don’t respect borders and one community’s problem quickly becomes every community’s problem.”

The 12 principles the report identifies are:

  • All crises are local – but there is wide variation in how localities respond.
  • Centralized policy does not matter – if it does not get local support.
  • Governments need a language to talk about crises – and the language is data.
  • Emergencies are often fought with goods, services and logistics – but state and local governments cannot preserve supply chains alone.
  • Governments must grow needed expertise – and wake from any delusions of confidence.
  • Artificial intelligence and predictive analytics can help – there is no need to fly blind.
  • Managing risks helps to avoid crises from getting unnecessarily worse.
  • The key is networks – but they do not spontaneously organize themselves.
  • Solutions to crises require trust – but trust is hard-earned.
  • Experiments in the “laboratories of democracy” are great – but they are worthless without learning.
  • The nation faces inequities – and the pandemic helped to make the effects of inequity more transparent.
  • Accountability is often the first casualty in a crisis – even when governments know the results of their efforts.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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