Blog The COVID-19 Pandemic and MPA Education: Student Perspectives on Public Service Values and Public Service Motivation

COVID-19 Pandemic Response & the Dilemma of American Federalism

usa flags on wall of governmental building facade in city
by Amanda Studor Bond:

It is no secret that the federal response to the global COVID-19 pandemic in the United States has been clumsy and disorganized. As I am writing this today, the United States leads the world in COVID related deaths. Many of the 5.31 million people who have recovered from COVID survived with long-term health effects and are now without health insurance. The national unemployment rate reached a historic peak of 14.7% in April while unemployment claims continue to remain high (and unfunded) during partisan Congressional stonewalling; and these statistics do not begin to describe the disproportionate effect COVID-19 has had on people of color and indigenous communities. With all of this, the question I keep coming back to is how did it get this bad?

One notable feature of the COVID-19 pandemic, and one possible explanation for the above observations, is that the government response has largely been driven by state and local officials. This is counter to historical precedent – federal power generally increases during a time of national crisis, with the FDR Administration’s approach to the Great Depression as a prime example.  Indeed, a unified, central response is common beyond national crises, especially as it relates to issues between multiple states. One of the first examples that comes to my mind is the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s (FEMA) National Response Framework developed to provide a “scalable, flexible, and adaptable” doctrine for how the Nation responds to an incident. Among the five guiding principles is “unity of effort through unified command”, which states that having a unified command ensures effective and efficient response across multiple jurisdictions, agencies, and organizations. During a natural disaster, such as a hurricane, FEMA follows its own framework by leaning on the National Hurricane Program and operationalizing the Hurricane Liaison Team to facilitate the rapid exchange of information to their partner agencies and local emergency management community.  

Like the COVID-19 pandemic, hurricanes and other natural disasters can be unpredictable, making FEMA’s planning, coordination, and emphasis of unified leadership invaluable in a crisis situation. With States, businesses, and citizens physically, economically, and socially connected, it seems that the need for an interstate, or national, solution to mitigate the spread of the virus was, and is, necessary. We knew early on that the primary spread of COVID-19 was through respiratory droplets and that it spreads quickly in close quarters and in large gatherings of people (airplanes, churches, concert venues, to name a few). Based on what we knew about the virus and effective emergency response, the pandemic response seemed to lack a unified federal directive to reduce the spread. Instead, what resulted was a fragmented response driven by state and local officials. With the absence of federal leadership, governors, mayors, and town councils, all with different values and objectives, took action by issuing executive orders ranging in efficacy, stringency, and language. 

While research into the content of these executive orders is still ongoing, I would postulate that the content and language contained within them vary based on that state’s general public opinion and/or that of their elected official. Regardless of intent, each decision state officials made, and continue to make, about the pandemic have tradeoffs rooted in variable values of state leaders, administrators, and their constituents. The primary problem is that these decisions within a state and between states can be at odds with one another, creating a patchwork of regulations confusing to citizens and businesses. This confusion is the primary reason for strong, centralized government during a time of national crisis.   

One key theme underpinning the study of public administration is the understanding that people have different values and opinions, which leads to challenges when making leadership decisions. As a current student of public administration and future leader, it is in moments like these that I must reflect on my own values and be reminded that no decision will ever be easy. However, during times of crisis it is not always necessary for a leader to have all of the right answers, but rather to act with clarity, confidence and conviction with the public’s health, welfare, and safety in mind.

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About the author:

Amanda Studor Bond is a Watershed Specialist with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. She has worked for the Office of Water Quality since 2017, shortly after she earned her Bachelor of Science from Purdue University in Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology with a minor in Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. She is currently seeking a Masters of Public Affairs in Environmental Policy and Sustainability, with a primary interest in the intersection of environmental justice and water resources.