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Public Administrators Cope With COVID-19 Stress—Potential for Use of Risk Management Methods

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

By Ferd H. Mitchell and Cheryl C. Mitchell
March 31, 2020

Essentially all public administrators are being required to cope with organizational stress caused by government-wide reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some organizations are being required to continue in full operation in order to provide essential services. Many are working with reduced staffing. For suitable activities and where arrangements are possible, some staff may be working from home.

Yet, many administrators are on the front lines of the pandemic as they seek to keep federal and state agencies operating, and as they respond to a wide range of unprecedented executive orders dealing with the impact of COVID-19. Administrators are experiencing challenges as they try to balance alternative working arrangements, sick staff and rapidly changing program requirements.

One of the problems faced by administrators is how to deal with an uncertain environment, unpredictable program changes and implementation issues due to unscheduled needs that must be accommodated. As it turns out, risk management strategies developed for financial institutions may be modified for use by administrators in public settings, and may assist with the pressures being faced.

In some circumstances, public agencies may be provided an opportunity to prepare for stressful situations. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 issues arrived with little warning. However, as described here, the methods of risk management may still be of assistance.

In many administrative settings, turmoil in the outside world often leads to stressful situations inside an agency. Unpredictable outside events place new demands on administrators. High levels of uncertainty may result in inner turmoil, stress and a reduction in effectiveness. This pattern is even more pronounced if a pandemic like COVID-19 reduces the availability of staff in unpredictable ways; resources may have been drained for other purposes, and needed support may be unavailable. An ad hoc, unprepared approach to dealing with uncertainty may impair operations.

Risk management procedures teach that where outside events are unpredictable and cannot be controlled, effort should be directed toward internal agency strategies that consider all categories of outside events that may be experienced, and all the ways in which an agency may choose to respond. While the outside world may be described in terms of unknown and unknowable uncertainty, the internal agency may prepare for all potential categories of disturbances.

The basic idea is that, although we cannot predict or control outside events, we can improve how agencies prepare for the events that may be encountered. This is done by (1) mapping out all types of outside events that may have to be faced; (2) mapping out all types of actions that an agency may take when faced with new tasks to be performed; and (3) indicating how each type of possible event may be linked to the range of possible actions that may be taken, as appropriate. The essence of risk management is that emphasis should be placed on preparing for whatever an agency may face.

For step (1), a list may be prepared of all the types of outside events that may place demands on an agency, considering the widest range of possibilities. Then, the various types of events that may be encountered (requests for action, directives, responses to problems or other inputs to the agency) may be grouped into convenient categories of similar types or with shared features. These categories may be developed based on the experiences of all staff involved. For example, an agency may list all the types of events that may involve requests from other offices, directives as to actions that are to be taken by the agency, or descriptions of problems that are to be dealt with using general agency insights.

The effort is to emphasize what can be done internally by an agency, even if outside events are unpredictable, as they often are in times of disruption. By describing what seem to be all categories of possible events, the outside world is mapped into possibilities. Whatever uncertainties give rise to events faced by the agency, we expect that every event will fall into one of these categories. If an event falls outside of all categories, we simply add a new category and move along. We cannot know about the specific events to be faced, but we can define the full range of events that we expect.

This is a meaningful step. Risk management teaches us that we cannot control the events that happen, but we can control the categories of events that we establish. We abandon control over the outside world (which is, after all, uncontrollable when faced with COVID-19 and other disruptions) but prepare ourselves by understanding the full range of events that may require agency responses and resolution.

For step (2), we inventory all of the various types of actions that the agency may take, whether formal or informal, in order to deal with events that occur. These types of actions are also grouped into categories. We then have established the range of capabilities of an agency to solve problems or complete assignments through action. Risk management directs us to understand the range of possible actions that are available to an agency. We can prepare regulations or procedures; issue directives; draw on expert advice; perform backup research; participate in online conferences and managing of webpages; and take other types of actions. These categories should span all of the activities that are available to an agency and may be updated if new capabilities are added.

This is another meaningful step: we then know what to expect of an agency. We have control over the possible actions that are categorized as available.

Finally, in step (3), we decide how each event category should be linked to the action categories. If an event category is “triggered” from the outside, we then know what categories of actions are possible. Each event category is linked to those action categories that are available. We then know how to draw on agency capabilities.

Risk management tells us that this type of examination of agency capabilities to detect and act on unexpected events—that arrive from an uncertain world—allows us to optimize control over ourselves and our agencies. In times of stability, such self-assessments may be unneeded; in times of turbulence and stress, and loss of effectiveness due to uncertainty, they may be essential. The risk associated with agency operations cannot be eliminated but can be managed.

For the COVID-19 pandemic, outside events have shifted in ways that few agencies have included in their implied categories for possible events (perhaps only those that routinely prepare for all possible types of disasters). Yet, agencies can adapt even after crises have developed through these risk management procedures.

The essence of risk management is an understanding that our lives are filled with unknown and unknowable uncertainties. The uncertainties being experienced today involve an incomplete understanding of COVID-19 and how it is affecting society; new laws and executive actions that have a compounding impact; how people will respond to the situation; and how the private sector will respond. These uncertainties are unknown because our insights into the future are imperfect, and are unknowable because we lack full information about how background interactions and randomness may affect many events.

Administrators are faced with an operating environment that reflects these same general uncertainties. Agencies may be dealing with unpredictable directions and requests; staffing and resources that are subject to external events, and actions that are limited by the situations facing other agencies and the entities on which they rely.

Given this situation, perfect control over the present or future is a mirage—always fading away into unexpected events. Yet, it is often possible to manage the impact of risk to some degree. Risk managers have long struggled with the problem of managing for unknown and unknowable financial uncertainties and the development of responsive strategies.

Even though the events to be encountered are unknown, strategies are available to help prepare for and cope with a range of potential types of events. The various perspectives and techniques discussed here have been shown to be effective for managing risk in financial settings when markets are shaped by unexpected events. These techniques are translated here for the settings experienced by public administrators.

The risk management approach involves putting into place strategies that are intended to result in more effective organizational responses to events, even when such events are not yet known or fully defined. These strategies are based on understanding how organizations can change themselves, and their rules and reactions, in order to better deal with the unexpected. We can’t control events, but we can control how we choose to prepare to be impacted by such unknown events and how we prepare to react when unexpected events arrive.

The key to managing unknown risk is to focus on the organization being affected, and to view possible events from this perspective. We can characterize events in terms of their potential impact on the organization to be affected, rather than focusing on the characteristics of the unknown risks and events themselves.

Risk management starts with categories of the ways in which unknown events may affect agencies. The categories do not describe the unknown events themselves (which are, after all, unknowable), but describe the ways in which possible events may impact an administrative office. Such categories may be developed by examining all aspects of office operations and developing categories to describe the key ways in which the office may interact with the outside world.

Each office should prepare its own list of impact categories, with enough detail to be representative of the enterprise. Each unexpected event will trigger “detection” of a type of event. When such a triggering occurs, coping efforts by an office have already been initiated.

Each office should also develop a list of the possible ways in which the office may develop reactions to all categories of events. The office should prepare lists of possible actions that accommodate all the ways in which the office may respond.

The combined result is categories of unknown incoming events and types of potential reactions. These may be linked together in planned strategies for each type of possible incoming directive or request. Each potential event category may be linked to as many potential reactions as makes operational sense. Unexpected events may then be dealt with in a structured way. The events are not controlled, but the enterprise preparation and responses have been structured.

In general, administrators may begin to feel that they are regaining a degree of control over their offices. A plan for dealing with uncertainty has been put into place. Such an effort can stimulate an office under stress into rethinking the types of external events that are of the most concern, the types of reactions that are possible, and how these should be linked together. All such strategies should reflect the restrictions of COVID-19 constraints.

Ferd H. Mitchell and Cheryl C. Mitchell
Mitchell Law Office

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