Managing the Unmanageable
When there is an administrative challenge, the best approach for public servants begins with a review of the symptoms or issues, followed by at least a preliminary diagnosis of what’s behind those symptoms, then a treatment program to rally the staff to attack and defeat the problem. This also involves reassuring residents and other stakeholders that things are being done responsibly, assertively and with the proper degree of seriousness.
The COVID-19 pandemic is as much a management problem as it is a medical problem. You cannot fight a major critical event without understanding it, relying heavily on the expert advice of a diverse body of advisors. Displaying bravado and promising that the problem will go away is unacceptable. You cannot fight successfully if you have not laid the foundation for victory by thoughtful preparation, anticipating unexpected horrors and on-going communications. You can’t fight any major battle in wartime or virus time without strong consistent and truthful leadership.
The primary job of a great leader is to be a dealer in hope — to offer colleagues and the community a sense of understanding of the fears and actions of citizens in time of crisis.
The great leader learns to control uncertainty by using understanding and confidently applying a sense of responsibility and hope. Uncertainty is an infectious coequal partner of the actual crisis itself. Spreading uncertainty, expanding fear and unleashing evils like racism or sexism by blaming certain groups or individuals, races, genders, etc. is the tactic of those “spoilers” intending to hurt people, silence opposition or create rather than control uncertainty. These tactics of bullies, criminals or autocrats generate fear that injures us and our institutions and ultimately us as individuals, family members and citizens.
I dictate this brief article in the parking lot of a supermarket at 7 a.m. — opening time — to pick up groceries (not including a hoard of toilet paper). I arrived to learn the store now opens at 8. The line outside includes people wearing gloves and masks and generally doing their best to keep away from their fellow humans. The uncertainty induced by changing processes or practices with no warning further supports the sense of uncertainty and shaking of stability which is often at the root of why people hoard toilet paper and look suspiciously at their fellows.
It does no good to dwell on what we should have been doing all along and what the neglect of our preparation duties has been, but it would be a shame not to take the steps that we can, now.
When the preparation for crisis management does not happen effectively, it leads to trouble and, in this case of a serious virus outbreak, increased risk of death or prolonged illness. If we had anticipated the capacity needed to muster and rapidly deploy infection tests kits and protective equipment, our ability to gather the medical intelligence needed for an immediate assault and pushback of the invading virus would have occurred much quicker than it is even now.
When these critical ingredients to combating the COVID-19 outbreak are weak or lacking at the federal level, the opportunity and the burden quickly shifts to America’s most effective levels of government — counties. Unclear federal leadership leads to a shifting of responsibility, perhaps without clear authority, to local officials to step in and act. They create the policies, take the risks and communicate hope to people in a way designed to calm frayed nerves, support and assist science, and help the country recover and learn from the experience. They end up being asked to create local solutions to a worldwide crisis.
There is another very serious disease spreading along with the virus — the widespread psychological disruption, loneliness and depression which occurs when uncertainty runs rampant and our stability is shaken. The millions, especially senior citizens, who live alone far from family or not in touch with them are particularly vulnerable. Those dependent upon stock market investments to realize their retirement dreams watch in a mixture of horror, sadness and fear as the value of their savings declines precipitously. The at-risk group includes employees who fear layoffs, furloughs, cuts in benefits or pay, all the while working overtime while doing work in more dangerous environments, such as health care and public safety professions. Local governments by now should have seen the value of having in place a 24/7/365 Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Like other protective measures, a great EAP can be a critical resource. Consider partnering with a neighboring agency to share the costs and the benefits of such a program.
Social distancing restrictions will help. However, social distancing without also suggesting “social media distancing” increases an already too familiar and growing human problem… isolation and reliance upon unproven “facts” and theories. While there are clear advantages to social media, including the capability to convey information about services and support, the balance between our humanity and our technology is a point worthy of a national dialogue once COVID-19 is defeated.
Teleworking is another tool with many benefits, especially, when social disruptions keep the kids out of school suddenly. But it opens concerns about cyber-security. Many government agencies rely on a two-level security protocol for data protection, recognizing that uncertainty and unrest are an open invitation to individual or group hackers. The result may expose sensitive agency data and the content of employee personal data to “hijacking.” Technological security devices, such as encryption “fobs” are in very major short supply. The result is that teleworking, like other innovations, works best when it is planned for in advance rather than slapped together without prior training, equipment and leadership.
Of course, the medical issues surrounding COVID-19 are absolutely critical but they must be partnered with effective and sustained leadership based on a fundamental crisis management principle whether in business, government or in our private lives: “Tell the truth; tell it often; and keep telling it!”
The pandemic we are now facing should remind us of the crucial importance of the role of local government.
America will prevail over COVID-19. So, very likely, will you and I. However, the price will be many thousands of victims of this virus who would likely not have been victims had we been prepared for early and aggressive intervention. Hail to local government leadership which we hope will double down on the importance of prevention and preparation and not allow the preparation imperative to fall on ears deafened by complacency or arrogance.
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