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Pandemic Planning: Avoiding the Last Minute Panic

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

By Thomas E. Poulin
March 4, 2020

The news cycle is filled with stories of the Coronavirus, with most warning of the potential spread of the disease. The news stories create a focus on the event, raising some sense of concern in the minds of the public, and rightfully so. There is no notable panic at this time, and public health officials will do what they can to prevent any in the future. But, what of everyone else in the public sector? What should public administrators do now to avoid panic within the organization later?

The community has service delivery expectations for public sector organizations. Some of these expectations are reasonable, some are aspirational and some, to be honest, might be questionable, based upon an inaccurate understanding of mission and available resources. When a crisis strikes, it is probable these expectations shall remain. They may, in fact, be higher, based on a presumption government actors should be prepared to step up and meet any emergent need. Consequently, public administrators in all settings should plan for a pandemic now, not responding to these expectations in panic-mode at a later time. This planning should include several specific concerns.

Develop Awareness: Certainly we should monitor the news for information on the Coronavirus or any other widespread illness, but we should also begin to explore how public agencies have reacted to such challenges in the past. Previous epidemics and crises of other sorts have created short-term changes in service demand, as well as in challenges to meet those services. We can benchmark our approaches to a pandemic response, learning from the previous successful responses of others. The questions are what challenges might our organization face if a pandemic strikes our community, and how might we meet those challenges?

Identify and Clarify Core Functions: Should a pandemic strike, we will see higher levels of workplace absences. Some will be tied to our employees being ill, some will be tied to their family members falling sick, and some will be tied to illnesses in their support systems such as their daycare providers. The number of employees available to carry out work will be smaller, perhaps much smaller. It is improbable we will be able to carry out normal service delivery. Every organization, regardless of the sector, will have both core and peripheral functions. The core functions are those essential services we must continue to provide, regardless of the circumstances. Before the workforce diminishes due to widespread illness, we must consider these points. What are our core functions, how will we continue to conduct these functions with a smaller workforce, and what training might be needed now to ensure we have staff capable of carrying out these functions should a pandemic strike?

Communicate Contingency Plans: Once we have created the contingency plans, we need to communicate them. Regardless of how well-crafted the plan might be, if it sits on a shelf unopened, it will have no value. We need to ensure everyone knows how we as an organization will react when a pandemic strikes, how we will refocus on core functions and what the new roles might be for those who can make it into the workplace during the crisis. Ideally, we will be able to provide training to support these contingency plans, cross-training employees to cover several roles based upon need. Even better, we will provide relevant, real-life experiences in performing those functions now, when everyone is in the workplace, when those who are experienced in a role may train and mentor those who might fill in during a pandemic at a time when the environment remains stable.

Remain FlexibleFocus on the Mission: There is an old adage that no plan ever survives implementation. It is impossible to identify and satisfactorily address all possible contingencies. Certainly, we need to create contingency plans for a pandemic, but we need to be fully cognizant challenges will occur. Scenarios will not play out precisely as we envisioned. Service demands will change.Staffing levels will be unpredictable. New challenges will emerge. People will be asked to fill roles, to carry out functions, and to make decisions far outside of their normal realms.

As public administrators at any level, we need to focus on our mission, and we need to be as flexible as possible in facing the challenges a pandemic might present. We also need to permit great flexibility by others within the organization, as long as in doing so we increase their capacity to achieve the core functions of the agency during the crisis. No plan will be perfect, but we can do much to continue to meet the needs and expectations of the community, even in a narrower form, if we remain adaptable.

To do, we must fully engage with our employees, while simultaneously supporting their needs. It is important we remember that while public sector employees are expected to perform during a crisis, they are members of the community as well, potentially affected as much as anyone else. Taking care of them is part of our mission as well.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, MS(HRM), MS(I/O Psych), EFO, serves on Capella University’s public administration core faculty. Prior to this, he served in local government for over three decades. He currently serves as the President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. He may be reached at [email protected]

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