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A Post-COVID Research Agenda

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael R. Ford
April 19, 2021

Christopher Pollitt wrote, in his 2016 book, that the future of Public Administration (PA) will be shaped by shocks to governance systems. While the relatively recent shocks of Brexit and Trumpism seemed era-defining at the time, the COVID-19 pandemic will likely be the shock that sets forth a new era in public governance. Those of us in the PA community need a research agenda that is up to the task of understanding this new era. Or, as a colleague told me, much of the research we did up to this point may be inadequate in explaining our new collective reality.

So what should a post-COVID research agenda look like? First, there needs to be more study of public health structures in federalist systems from a PA perspective. The United States’ response to COVID-19 was inhibited by fragmented public health agencies offering inconsistent guidelines, and mandates, within states. In fact, the most powerful study in favor of mask mandates, the Kansas study, was only possible because of these inconsistent policies. I wonder if a different structure could have improved our COVID-19 response. I wonder, should health agencies be embedded in municipalities, or, should they be special purpose governments? Should there be governing alignment between state health agencies and local agencies? Most broadly, do the structures of our health agencies within the larger family of governments impact their effectiveness?

There is also need to better understand the capacity of the nonprofit sector to provide services during a crisis. Government failure theory posits that the nonprofit sector can step in when government is not up to the task. Neoliberal theories of governance argue that market forces can improve consumer choice, and overall effectiveness, when utilized in public service delivery. But the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the disconnect between PA theories of nonprofit governance and the reality. While countless nonprofit organizations helped during the pandemic response, the sector as a whole lacked the authority, capacity and direction to mitigate the pandemic’s veracity. Nonprofits acted as charitable organizations designed to alleviate suffering, as opposed to governance agents capable of a coordinated response. This is not meant to be an attack on the nonprofit sector, but rather a wake-up call regarding the truths of governing during a crisis. The nonprofit sector can be an asset, but because it lacks the authority attached to a government actor, it cannot be the dominant force.

More research on Mary Guy’s conceptualization of the citizen-state encounter is also sorely needed in a post-COVID PA. The rejection of expertise in favor of common-sense solutions that are in fact mere snake oil, the comparison of pandemic-related health measures to tyranny and the spread of disinformation all demonstrate that a significant population does not feel good about their government. In my capacity as a local official, I am troubled by the number of emails I receive exclaiming that it is not government’s role to make policies, but rather, only to protect the people from the government. The logic makes my head spin. But the reality is that there is a vocal segment of the population that trusts patently false and conspiratorial information precisely because it is not from the government. A lack of trust in government is a problem. An actively adversarial stance to all government is destructive in a democracy. The pandemic has exposed the problem, and the PA community must work to understand and address it. Doing so will require what Guy deemed the expansion of our collective toolset.

Finally, we need to elevate the case study approach to fully understand the nuances of what worked, and what did not work, in specific COVID-19 responses. The flurry of COVID-19 special issues started the conversation, but that conversation cannot reach its full explanatory power until after the pandemic has subsided and the field has time to reflect on the immediate and lasting impacts of COVID-motivated policies and decisions.

There were times where the government response to COVID-19 seemed like a mostly futile task akin to bailing out a sinking canoe with a shot glass. Yes, the response mattered. No, we were never going to fully solve the problem. But too many of the obstacles to an effective response were of our own making. Even the way I write about this, in the past tense, is a potential problem. The pandemic is not over yet, and the lifting of reasonable public health regulations may in fact prolong its wrath. Nonetheless, it is not too early to begin thinking about how we, as a field, can systematically learn from the challenges of the last year.    

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference, and as an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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