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Reflecting on 2020 and Looking Ahead to a Challenging 2021

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

By Michael R. Ford
December 12, 2020

Every year I write a column on the big issues facing Public Administration (PA) over the next year. It is fair to say the biggest issue in 2020, COVID-19, was not something I saw coming. It is also fair to say the continuing impacts of COVID-19 will dominate the work of public organizations in 2021. But COVID-19 is just one major challenge. The United States is experiencing a period of national political stress, and racial unrest, that will leave uncertain future impacts. All of this is to say 2020 was tough, and 2021 may be even tougher.

In the abstract, we can take some comfort in the fact that the United States’ governing institutions appear to have held. Despite an onslaught of conspiracy peddling and baseless lawsuits, the country is headed for a peaceful transfer of presidential power based on the expressed will of the electorate. That said, as of this writing, President Donald Trump continues to attack the validity of the 2020 presidential election. While this effort will not overturn the legitimate election results, it is reducing faith in our electoral process in ways that will cause unknown future damage. To put it another way, that our institutions held is encouraging, but ensuring the damage to those institutions is repaired is a future challenge facing all levels of government. I do not know precisely how to meet that challenge, but our field’s commitment to pro-active transparency is a piece of the puzzle.

A related challenge is restoring faith in government competency. The United States’ response to COVID-19, as evidenced by the confusing patchwork of state and local approaches, has been disjointed and inconsistent. There are reasons for this, including the absence of federal leadership, but the response has nonetheless called into question our system’s ability to respond to a truly universal crisis. The big logistical challenge of 2021 will be the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, which is an opportunity to restore people’s faith in their government. Doing it well will require coordination between all levels of government to ensure vaccines are widely available, as well as an advocacy campaign to ensure people trust and actually get the vaccine.

2021 will bring other challenges that are related to the COVID-19 pandemic. For many families the 2020-2021 school year will be a total loss. Socio-economically disadvantaged children are most likely to be hurt by the pandemic-related changes to K-12 education; this reality will worsen the stubborn achievement gaps that already exist in the United States. Bold approaches, like replacing traditional grade-levels with competency-based placements, full-year schooling, and a catch-up year, need to be on the table. And any education recovery effort needs to consider the emotional and developmental challenges children are experiencing right now. Getting K-12 education back to “normal” will require a multi-track approach, and school districts cannot be expected to go at it alone.

The financial impact of COVID-19 on state and local government will show up in a big way in 2021. Government revenue sources, including sales tax, personal and corporate income tax and the property tax, will all likely be down. As a result, shared revenue to local governments will likely decrease as well. The local appetite for increased fees and taxes to offset losses will likely be nil (if even allowed in some states). Presumably some type of federal response will ease some of the pain, but even so, there will be a need for creativity in public financial management in the year ahead.

2020 also brought enhanced attention to continued racial inequities in the United States broadly, and structural inequities embedded in public organizations specifically. 2021 needs to be a year when the talk around racial and social equity in government is turned into tangible action. Action must include structural reforms where needed, more differentiation between front-line workers in law enforcement and social work roles and the use of equity measures to identify where public organizations are falling short. Most important is understanding that social equity is the pillar than enables all the others—An inequitable government is an ineffective one.

In reflection, 2020 just feels strange. It is easy to become numb to the daily reports of thousands dead, many more sick, healthcare systems strained, businesses and people struggling and a government that, in too many ways, does not appear up to the challenge. But in times of crisis there is opportunity; opportunity to rethink service delivery, to challenge our assumptions, to modernize our social service systems and to build a fairer government. Mostly, a challenging year is an opportunity to learn from our mistakes, and to grow. Here is hoping 2021 will be a year of redemption that restores people’s faith in our governing institutions.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference, and as an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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