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Hard-Fought Wisdom and Experience: The Importance of a Bipartisan Gubernatorial After-Action Report for COVID-19

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

By Nathan Myers and Tonya Thornton
July 18, 2020

In the midst of a public health emergency like COVID-19, the federalist nature of the public health and emergency management systems can create particular complications. As the United States was hard hit by COVID-19, the Trump Administration confronted criticism of its slow recognition or acknowledgement of the viral threat and mismanagement of acquiring and distributing resources like personal protective equipment and ventilators, lack of clear and consistent messaging on social distancing and delay in establishing a federal testing apparatus.

Disasters like COVID-19 occur amid the densely interconnected web of social and political environments. Such environments required U.S. state governors to balance clear messaging, effective resource management and ways to guide their citizens toward a return to normalcy. It has been noted that governors often have limited preparation for crisis management, even though doing such work effectively can have important political benefits. Traditional crisis management models have been focused on post-crisis response and recovery lessons learned from terrorist attacks, which have limited utility for a crisis like COVID-19. Also, policymakers are ill-equipped to handle many of the economic, health and environmental elements of emergencies while managing social and political upheaval.

One mechanism for elected officials to share lessons learned from emergencies are after-action reports. However, scholars like Knox and Davies et al. have noted limitations in regard to report recommendations being implemented, as well as the methodology and transparency of such reports. Key to effective response and preparing for the future is cultivating loyalty, trust and social cooperation among the general public. Sincere efforts to communicate shortcomings and ways of avoiding them in the future can be useful in bolstering those societal resources. Decisionmaking models for crisis management have highlighted a need for collaborative partnerships (see Peter deLeon’s work).

Several governors have received positive recognition for addressing the issues noted above through effective crisis communication as the pandemic was heavily affecting their state. Julian Zelizer favorably compares the press briefings done by Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York to those done by President Trump and the coronavirus task force. In public statements, Cuomo demonstrated a willingness to take responsibility for any negative effects brought on by delayed action on the pandemic, in comparison to Trump’s steadfast refusal to do so.

As the President acknowledged himself on Twitter, COVID-19 is America’s first 50-state national disaster. However, some governors decided that each state developing and implementing its own solution would only add to the chaos. Lack of federal coordination has led to governors forming bipartisan consortiums to acquire ventilators and to develop plans for reopening.

If there is to be a true accounting of the strengths and weaknesses of the federal government’s COVID-19 response, it will need to come from the governors. Polling consistently shows many governors outperforming President Trump in terms of their COVID-19 response. A plan for making sure that the issues created by federal mismanagement are recorded for posterity should include a joint, bipartisan after-action report created with collaboration by state governors.

While each state will need to write its own after-action report, the message would be much more impactful if state consortiums wrote a joint after-action review signed by Republican and Democratic governors. Not only would this be a clearer document for history’s sake, but it would be more likely to break through the partisan noise and resonate with the American people. Individual reports pointing to the federal government’s response as a source of difficulty affecting state responses could be dismissed as blame avoidance, particularly in regard to Democratic governors.

A return to normalcy will require an honest look back at the COVID-19 response and all the effective and ineffective areas of the response. A joint, bipartisan review among governors will not only effectively model coordination but also help rebuild political trust eroded by the partisanship evident during this emergency. Such an effort would be more impactful because so many of the governors have developed strong public trust during the response. The effort will need to be mindful of the previous research and make sure that lessons are implemented and the methodology is clear.

The process of collecting, analyzing, and interpreting information requires buy-in from all stakeholders. The right communicators will also be required to make the case to the American public, and, based on performance and public approval, successful governors of both parties working together would be most impactful. These elements are just as important from an organizational learning perspective as they are in the thick of a response. Governors will need to continue to collaborate to manage future outbreaks and downstream effects of COVID-19. This will involve sharing lessons learned to promote implementation of needed reforms, the effects of which will cross state lines. Governors must also model cooperation in the face of partisan rancor in Congress and within their own states, during and after the pandemic.

Governors must make certain that the lessons of this pandemic are not lost to history and are remembered, not as partisan soundbites, but as the hard-fought wisdom and experience of duly elected leaders. The collecting and sharing of their institutional knowledge will advance our capacity to manage future risk amid increasing complexity.

Authors:

Nathan Myers, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Director of the Master of Public Administration at Indiana State University. His areas of research include public policy, public health emergency preparedness, and the governance of biotechnology. He is the author of Pandemics and Polarization: Implications of Partisan Budgeting for Responding to Public Health Emergencies.

Email: [email protected]; Twitter: nagremye1980

Tonya E. Thornton (formerly Neaves), Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Her pragmatic approach is premised on the integration of scholarship with the communities of practice. To date, Dr. Thornton’s research funding approximates $6 million, with expertise in community resiliency, critical infrastructure, and emergency management.

Email: [email protected] 

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