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Managing the Known-Unknowns: A Review on Public Service’s Responses to Emergencies, Crises and Environmental Threats

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

By Omur Damla Kuru
December 5, 2021

Modern policy problems (e.g., political crises, environmental degradation) pose significant challenges for policymakers. These challenges mostly derive from evolving political, environmental and technological conditions that present deep complexities and uncertainties. Moreover, these emerging problems leave decisionmaking processes in a cumulative burden as they, in most cases, magnify societies’ deeply rooted problems such as social disparities. Amid this clash of familiar and unknown, policy action needs an adaptive and overarching approach that a) utilizes the influx of information and b) embraces and coordinates the efforts coming from various actors.

In this era of complexities and uncertainties—known unknowns—the public sector needs a shift from traditional approaches towards innovative and creative solutions to sustain the socio-economic well-being of society. The new public service approach argued this break from the past underlining the government’s shifted role from controlling or steering society toward helping citizens meet their shared interests. However, it has become increasingly complicated for governments to identify and meet society’s needs, which are shaped by a complex set of evolving conditions. For instance, responses to problems such as climate change usually fail due to the lack of understanding of the problem.

Climate change threatens ecosystems and human systems with significant impacts, including heatwaves, wildfires, droughts and sea level rise (SLR). Despite its slow—or almost invisibly—occurring nature, communities already face severe impacts. For instance, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that the United States experienced an increase of between 300 and 900% in nuisance flooding in the last 50 years due to SLR. However, the problem rarely appears at the top of the policy agenda. The deep uncertainties surrounding it prevent policymakers from taking immediate action. The vagueness about potential impacts mostly derives from varying global projections, as well as the lack of agreement on possible solutions to the problem.

Local impacts are even less understood as the predictions are often conducted at the global level. Therefore, local governments, usually equipped with limited resources, lack focus on this long-term threat even though they are on the front line of potential impacts. As argued in Burby’s local government paradox, hazard mitigation may not seem cost-effective when compared to more immediate concerns such as crime or housing. Its returns are not usually immediate and benefits are likely to be seen after elected officials’ tenure expires. However, it is essential to note that long-term policy actions diverge from traditional cost analysis, which may not reflect a full picture of our future. As argued by Stern and Stern in their book, The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review, the potential social costs through inequities caused by the predicted and unpredicted environmental impacts can be severe. Hence, policy analyses can be more accurate if they focus on minimizing risk rather than maximizing utility.

Environmental impacts also magnify existing social problems, creating a domino effect. Hurricane Katrina, for instance, flooded the city of New Orleans and displaced more than 1 million Gulf Coast residents. Fothergill and Peek, in their 2015 book, Children of Katrina, revealed that residents faced economic challenges, PTSD, depression and more even years after the catastrophe. Fussell et al. in, Race, socioeconomic status and return migration to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina,” suggested that the adverse impacts of the disaster were greater on racial minorities.

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, residents already were relocating to the mainland, primarily in response to economic problems. The migration accelerated due to the harsh post-disaster conditions including a lack of electricity, water or cellular service for several months. The 2017 case study I conducted in the Florida Keys after Hurricane Irma uncovered that disasters affect smaller communities even more severely. Nearly a year after the storm, the community was still extremely affected by lack of affordable housing. This problem, which was chronic in the area, exponentially increased after the hurricane, which destroyed a large portion of workforce housing. My study revealed that as much as the Keys is on the frontline of the rising sea, SLR-related risks were largely missing in the community’s recovery process.

A national-level domino effect was experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States, the top-ranking country in terms of death and case numbers, governments’ capabilities have been challenged. Dimand and Brunjes argued in their The Conversation article that the federal system failed, slowing down local responses instead of lightening the burden faced by state and local governments. The response failed to alleviate the lopsided impacts on existing social disparities. According to a CDC report published earlier this year, racial and ethnic minority populations were the most socially vulnerable communities in terms of infection and death rates. As Xu and Tang suggested in their article titled, “Closing the Gap or Widening the Divide: The Impacts of Technology‐Enabled Coproduction on Equity in Public Service Delivery,” technological advancements such as “smart” services help close the gap between minority and nonminority groups in some emergency cases. However, minorities usually have a greater need but less political capital to reach out to the government.

Modern policy problems pave the way for the break from our traditional policy approaches and call for innovative solutions. They highlight the necessity of a long-term, analytic and overarching policy approach to keep up with the changes in society. This approach requires continuously utilizing information coming from both global sources and local practices. We can learn from local efforts—the Sea Level Wise Program (Virginia Beach) and Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, to name but two— that are informed by local vulnerabilities and adopt long-term approaches to tackle the problem.

The innovative policy approaches need to involve various key actors as the problems usually cross political boundaries and affect a wide range of stakeholders. Actions such as managed retreat—relocation of settlements towards inland areas—can bring to light diverse policy positions. As in the case of the battle between the California Coastal Commission and the City of Del Mar, upper-level decisions can be challenged by a strong local reaction. Hence, governments need to embrace feedback from various actors to reach an in-depth understanding of the potential impacts on different groups.

Environmental problems, along with the growing challenges they present, are likely to be on our agenda for years to come. The lessons from the recent disasters suggested that existing policy practices need to be adjusted to adopt an adaptive approach. They need a transparent system that is informed by interdisciplinary research and community participation and provide effective collaboration among different levels of government and other stakeholders.

Author: Omur Damla Kuru is a Ph.D. candidate in the public affairs program in the public policy and administration department at Florida International University. Her research interests relate to environmental policymaking, sea level rise, emergency management and resilient development. She received a Quick Response Grant from the Natural Hazard Center (funded by the National Science Foundation) for her research project, which explored the link between shocks-rapid-onset hazards, and stresses-slow-onset hazards in the Florida Keys. She is a recipient of the Doctoral Evidence Acquisition (DEA) Fellowship from Florida International University and is a 2021 ASPA Founders’ Fellow. She can be reached at [email protected].

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