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Now, Public Administration Needs a Fifth Pillar

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

By Nathan Favero
April 12, 2020

The pillars of public administration are: economy, efficiency, effectiveness, equity and—in times of crisis—speed (or “expedition” if you want another e-).

If I’ve learned one thing about government from the novel coronavirus pandemic already, it’s that we need governments that can react with incredible speed.

We need new tests. We need more masks. We need to help folks who lost their jobs.

None of these things can wait. The virus will spread. Nurses and doctors will get sick. People’s bills will come due.

But is the need for speed in public administration really unique to times of crisis? We might think of timeliness as a perpetual consideration, fitting under the traditional pillar of efficiency (or effectiveness). There’s certainly a sense in which that’s true. But normally, we think about efficiency mainly in terms of carefully planning and constructing our systems such that they can deal with daily demand in a timely and cost-minimizing fashion.

What we need now is the ability to rapidly re-engineer entire systems, or to develop them anew with near-instant deployment. We suddenly need a system for mass testing and contact tracing throughout the country. A novel process to manage the urgent healthcare needs of both those who (likely) have the virus and those who do not. We need a new apparatus to identify people with immunity to the virus and to authorize them to break the broader social distancing requirements since they cannot spread the virus.

Re-engineering our unemployment insurance

Take the example of economic assistance. Normally, an overhaul of the unemployment formula would be rolled out slowly. The government might pass a law outlining the main changes and then give public administrators nine months to design new forms, update software programs and publish instructions on how to apply for the updated benefits.

Contrast that with the bill the President signed into law last month that (among other things) boosts unemployment benefits to mitigate the economic fallout caused by social distancing. By the time the bill was drawn up, people had already started losing jobs. The aid couldn’t come quickly enough.

In an ideal world, we might temporarily change our unemployment insurance program so that it would compensate a full 100% of any lost earnings. Instead, the new law indicates that everyone receiving unemployment will get an extra $600 per week on top of whatever payment they would ordinarily receive.

This inelegant solution means that some folks will receive a larger check from unemployment than the paycheck they used to get when they still had a job. That can create some pretty weird incentives for folks still working low-paying jobs. Some workers may ask their employer to let them go since they can increase their income by going on unemployment, at least in the short term. Perhaps more likely than this is the problem employers will face when they try to hire new workers for low-skilled positions, since the employers will be competing with unemployment checks worth more than the typical wages paid for many of these positions.

A handful of Senators voiced objection to the new unemployment provisions, raising precisely these concerns. But why did Congress ultimately agree to this arrangement?

Because speed is currently more important than precision. And state unemployment systems are not well-positioned to change their payout formulas on short notice.

Because of our unique federal system of government, unemployment insurance is run by state governments. And these state governments use different formulas to calculate what benefits people receive and for how long. Furthermore, states are generally using antiquated software systems to process unemployment claims, making it impossible to quickly reconfigure them to calculate how much to pay unemployed workers without giving them more than their prior wages.

Even having taken the administratively “simple” route, state unemployment offices can’t keep up with the new workload. The military may have been built with an eye toward preparing for a sudden, acute crisis. Unemployment agencies were not.

Maine is currently trying to manage the flow of unemployment claims by asking people to file on different days depending on the first letter of their last name. Minnesota is using the same approach, except they sort people based on the last digit of their social security numbers. States are hiring personnel and moving them around. But they are fighting a tsunami of claims that no one planned for.

Facing tough tradeoffs

Public policy and administration have always been about tradeoffs. The current crisis highlights several tough ones.

We have to balance the risk of making sure tests and treatments work against the risk of lost time. We have to weigh citizens’ needs for basic governmental services against the risks incurred by public officials continuing to show up for work. We have to communicate urgency while instilling hope. For many local and state governments facing balanced budget requirements and slashed revenues, we must consider the financial opportunity costs of every dollar spent at the same time that new, urgent community needs are popping up demanding a government solution.

Author: Nathan Favero (nathanfavero.com) is an assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University. His research focuses on public management, education policy, social equity, and research methods. E-mail: [email protected]. Twitter: @favero_nate

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