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Continuity and Calamity

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

By Patrick Mulhearn
April 23, 2020

A government that’s working is invisible: you don’t notice the intricate and arcane efforts that go on behind the scenes of your daily life until something fails. You hit a pothole on your commute, your water bill goes up or your deck permit takes six months to approve and suddenly something has stopped working for you.

In a crisis—say, a pandemic—the strength or fragility of that structure will suddenly be in the spotlight: in addition to normal operations, agencies must take on new and sometimes unfamiliar roles. And while continuity of operations plans are common in both private and public firms, government agencies lack some of the flexibility of corporations when faced with crises. Basic government services continue even when large sectors of the economy have shut down.

Rucks et al. note that one issue is, “The relatively inexperienced individuals who may be called upon to develop [continuity of operations plans or COOPs] for organizations often do not completely understand COOP requirements or how to translate them into a practical plan.” What we’ve seen at every level of government during the current pandemic is this deficiency, as contingency plans are tested for the first time. And while civil servants have adapted these systems to reflect real-world needs, every agency is learning where their planning was insufficient.

But planning for disaster is fundamental to government, and there have been integrated state and federal plans along with templates for local governments to follow for almost 70 years.

The Business of Government

Of the many ways that public administration echoes business administration, strategic and operational planning in government are integral to success. There’s a whole economy of strategic planning workshops, seminars, consultants and reports because this is true.

But unlike private firms, public entities continue operations even in exigent circumstances; the black swan that forces a corporation to shed divisions and curtail operations instead forces another layer of responsibility on government. All the quotidian operations that define counties, cities and states must continue to function even when disaster strikes.

Public administration is the direct descendant of business administration, as the first government reforms of the Progressive Era were explicitly modeled on the principals of business administration. Thus the application of business principals in government administration is common, with several eras of government reform reflecting innovations or novel ideas in business.

Borrowing a corporate approach, state and Federal government have developed overlapping layers of strategic planning between various interacting agencies. This nested system of flow-charts and model policies has informed emergency planning at every level, but it is only rarely tested—and then only at a local or regional level. What we’ve seen with the current pandemic is testing the system at every level simultaneously: a truly global threat. The level of collaboration that will be required to execute continuity plans in this environment is possible with existing technology and planning. We just need to prioritize it.

Executing a Plan

Effective execution of government missions during a global crisis rests on investing in infrastructures such as telecommunications facilities, enhanced remote work capabilities and developing new capacity for decentralized service delivery.

As much as possible, local governments should develop and support online form submittals, applications and payment processing and develop robust remote working capabilities for public employees. For this to be feasible, reliable telecommunications facilities should be prioritized and networked mobile devices and VPN-capable terminals should be procured. If every worker can’t work from home, then staggered schedules should be developed to maximize social distancing.

Continuity of operations is more feasible now with online and other digital solutions. But while teleconferencing capabilities are ubiquitous, some public bodies are required by law to meet in public.  States and local jurisdictions should collaborate on a set of legal definitions and standards for remote public meetings to provide more flexibility.

Local voting systems should develop the technical capabilities for all-mail ballots, reducing the need for person-to-person interface. While this has become a surprisingly partisan issue, the basic fact of administrative systems is that they function better with fewer user inputs. All our systems now need to be reconsidered, and our election system is just one prominent example amongst many.

Local governments should reconsider how building permits are submitted, for example, and invest in electronic plan-submission capabilities. In fact all public-facing functions of government should be reconsidered from a virtual or online perspective. In many jurisdictions this shift has already been underway, but there’s an opportunity now to invest in decentralizing these systems and every organization should be re-examining their current business practices.

Remote work infrastructure for public employees needs to be in place, and local governments need to develop decentralized contingencies to accommodate large portions of the public workforce working remotely. Our tradition of nesting several public agencies within one campus may need to be reconsidered for our social-distancing future.

The seeds of a comprehensive, nationwide system are already in place. Perhaps coronavirus will be a catalyst for the next innovation in public service, one capable of responding to the global challenges we now face. If a global pandemic has taught us anything it’s that planning shouldn’t be an afterthought.


Author: Patrick Mulhearn, MPA, is a public policy analyst for the Santa Cruz County, California, Board of Supervisors. He focuses primarily on policies relating to telecommunications and transportation infrastructure and may be reached at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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