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Goodbye 2020: Lessons Learned from a Year of Resilience Amidst a Confluence of Challenges

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

By Hillary Knepper
December 12, 2020

It’s December. Thankfully, this most challenging of years is drawing to a close. As it started, it is ending in the midst of the turbulence of the COVID-19 global pandemic. But what we’ve experienced between then and now seems more like a millennium rather than 10 months or so. It seems as if 2020 tossed out a multitude of challenges for us to weather; a global pandemic, the challenging election season, nearly unprecedented job loss and the shuttering of businesses large and small. In the United States and gaining ground elsewhere is a reckoning with racial injustice on a macro scale.

The global challenges we face in the New Year are daunting. In the words of Sombo Chunda, we’re dealing with some complex tame issues. But we have proven our resilience. Resiliency has taken on new meaning as both the public and private sectors have worked to enhance the efficiency of their operations. This entails managing through deep budget cuts, navigating an inability to work in the office, negotiating the loss of child care and making substantial investments in new business operations. A new shared lexicon has infiltrated even our non-healthcare workplaces that includes contact tracing, standing community health testing, face mask policies, Zoom Stations, daily safety app check-ins, quarantine and isolation and social distancing. Each of these focused on protecting communities large and small and the continuation of operations as best we could as educators, producers, retailers, grocers, election workers and more.

Indeed, the adversity created by the chaos of this past year has been largely inequitably distributed. But this is where public administrators have the opportunity to reflect on what we’ve learned and the power to remedy these misdistributions. In looking back as we move forward, there are several lessons learned from 2020, where we:

  • Strengthened efficiency—One lesson we’ve learned through this chaotic 2020 year of challenge is that, of necessity, many of us strengthened efficiency; in operations, in budgets, in meetings and in our leadership. Whether it was small tweaks or large leaps, efficiency gains may prove to be long-lasting. Concerns about productivity while working remotely have been largely forgotten as organizations have continued to deliver their services in a complete virtual environment.
  • Innovated our technology infrastructure—Efficiency gains in part may be attributed to technology innovations. No need for conference spaces—we’ve moved to Zoom. Cancel that conference? No way! Move it to a Zoom powered webinar. Many of us used Remote Access systems for our desktops while we toiled remotely on our laptops. For higher education institutions, we moved to specialized health screening applications and Zoom Stations to accommodate our learners on site and remotely. Didn’t want to stand in long voter lines? Then like millions of voters, you voted by mail thanks to significant investments in technology by elections offices all over the country. It took some time to count all those mail-in ballots, but our poll workers delivered, the counting was certified and the results were announced.
  • Proved resiliency—Our healthcare systems were pushed to the breaking point as they delivered innovation and promoted collaboration to meet the demands of COVID-19. Our schools continued their educational activities. Wherever possible, businesses shifted their practices to function in this new normal—outdoor dining sound familiar? Grocery stores offered Senior Days and times and enacted major changes to their usual business activities, but our food supply chain remained largely intact. Our social activists rallied for change in an organized and sustained effort. Our presidential election had the largest voter turnout in modern history.
  • Strengthened relationships—The shared experience of this difficult year of stress and catastrophe has led to strengthening relationships both within and across organizations. This has been done through efforts to share what has worked in addressing the challenges this year has brought. Video conferencing has brought us closer together and into each other’s homes. Opportunities to build relationships among practitioners and their communities have emerged.
  • Identified opportunities for change—There is nothing like multi-tiered catastrophe to prompt change in the public and nonprofit sectors. This year we’ve sat back, re-evaluated our workflows and our service delivery. We’ve emerged with fresh ideas and perspectives, meeting our public service needs in the midst of turmoil. Perhaps we will emerge out of the calamitous 2020 year with renewed purpose in ending racial injustice, developing more equitable economic practices and improving equity within our communities.

As we move toward 2021 it is a good time to ask ourselves what’s working. What’s not? And how can we do better? As we engage in our associations like ASPA, can we commit to transparency in communications both within and across our organizations? To sharing our data openly? To crowd source community engagement for the greater good? We have the momentum of resilience and urgency. It would be a shame to waste it.


Author: Dr. Hillary J. Knepper, MPA, Associate Professor, Interim Associate Provost for Student Success, Pace University: [email protected]. She has 20 years’ administrative experience as a practitioner in the public and nonprofit sectors. Her most recent work appears in Public Administration Review, Teaching Public Administration, the Journal of Public Affairs Education and Public Administration Quarterly. She is the co-editor of the Journal of Health & Human Services Administration.

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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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