“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times….” Charles Dickens penned this famous phrase in the 18th century in reference to the political and economic turmoil narrated in A Tale of Two Cities as Paris and London faced the dual American and French Revolutions. Just a few months ago, if a historian visited the United States, s/he would have learned about the great economic prowess of its economy, at least for some, its military strengths, high GDP, low unemployment rates and a myriad of impressive financial metrics. These measurements were quickly muted in January to the present, as the United States and over 195 countries world-wide became the host of an unwelcomed virus that has reached pandemic proportions.
To say these are chaotic times would be a pedestrian observation at best. For those in public administration and public policy analysis, we need to think about the future of governance set within the context of a world-wide pandemic and massive civil protests and demonstrations on the streets of the United States. These tumultuous times are characterized by increasing levels of anxiety, uncertainty, depression, fear; tempered with the triple spirits of resilience, opportunity and the development of institutional trustworthiness.
The economic, political, and social climate that dominates affairs at all levels of government—national, state, and local—are nearly unmatched in the last century. The crisis, produced by the spread of a tiny virus, a novel coronavirus (COVID-19) that burst upon the scene with pandemic consequences, will fundamentally affect how policies will be made and administration conducted in the immediate future. The economic strife faced by state, municipal, and local governments for the next few years (at least) will leave an indelible impact. The corresponding “shutdown” of the American economy and its disruptive effect on traditionally accepted ways of doing things socially and culturally, will leave a lasting footprint on basic societal structures, mores, and human behavior.
The changes taking place are already palpable in the rapid transformation of how things we used to take for granted were done, to new ways of doing things, augmented by technology and public health necessity. These changes are evident in the following areas: voting, telecommuting, education systems (from K-12 to graduate levels), all manner of shopping (from the mall and main street businesses to Amazon and from clothing to groceries), Tele-everything (medicine, health care, legal activities, conferencing (Microsoft Team, Zoom, Facetime, etc.), insurance claims and adjustments, travel, recreation and leisure, dining activities, manufacturing, assembling, production processes and other congregates, to basic citizen-governmental interactions and essential economic exchanges. And, of course, the explosive use of Skype, Instagram, Twitter, among others, and the necessity of social distancing. In addition, there will be an increase in regional collaboration, lower interest rates and greater indebtedness (later, perhaps higher tax efforts), complicated further by the decline in globalization, and the rise of populism and “nationalism,” and the rise of the virtual organization.
Historically, pandemics have left a lasting impact on the ways in which societies have done things ranging from antiquity to the present time. The cursory list which follows presents an ecological framework in which state and local government will be exercised, and some of the new conditions which will affect how we administer and manage governmental enterprises.
- The U.S. economy will be mercurial as it attempts to regain the prowess it held in pre-COVID-19 times, yet there will remain many foreseen and unforeseen influences that will differentiate a volatile recovery, making distinctions between “Main Street and Wall Street.”
- Unemployment rates will soar to levels unmatched since the Great Depression and will be uneven between those who have higher levels of education and can work in careers that adapt quite easily to telecommuting, and those who do not, and by variables such as socioeconomic status, place, and race/ethnicity.
- Local and state governments will experience a massive decline in revenues from sundry sources, at least until the economy has a full recovery.
- Educational systems, public and private, will need to adapt to new ways of learning where technology (think Internet) will play an essential role, and distance education will become commonplace.
- The fragility and incapacity of governmental health and a myriad of other major infrastructure systems to respond to medical and economic demands will be recognized and require major adjustments, if not revolutionary change (unemployment and training programs, defunding certain areas of governmental service (police, justice and security enforcement), energy production, and climate change). Simultaneously, there is an ongoing and increased “hollowing out” and politicization of governmental departments, bureaus and offices.
- In re-thinking what changes are incumbent, resilience is required. This is neither the first nor the last pandemic we will have to face. Keep in mind that the city has become a defining government unit of the 21st Century and the new human scale embedded in urban designs will emphasize livability, accessibility, affordability, walkability, etc., for people rather than cars; rethinking HVAC (heating, cooling and ventilation) technologies; housing needs in proximity to employment opportunities; and the rapidly changing demographics of a country edging toward 330 million—a nation where the majority is soon to become the minority and the minority the majority. This phenomenon is already evident as masses of humanity take to the streets to protest the current state of race relations, access to quality health care, economic, social, and environment injustice, and among many other problems, the twin issues of violence and police brutality.
- Last, the principles inherent in our federal system of government will be challenged and tested in terms of rightful power, authority, protections, and the “rule of law,” and the proper role of national and state governments will be debated and litigated during these
chaotic times. Democratic principles of this republic will be increasingly threatened by the rise of authoritarianism, attacks against a “free press,” and the elemental standards of fairness, equity, justice and TRUTHFULNESS. It will be difficult to navigate the future and address these existential threats if a nation cannot agree on what constitute the basic facts of our culture and science.
As this summative list shows, these are challenging times and the problems and issues that confront policy makers and administrators are indeed important ones. They become all the more salient as we more fully realize that the American governmental experience is a work in progress (“…to form a more perfect union….”), and as we struggle to meet the demands of “liberty and justice for everyone.”
The “best of times” remains aspirational if the changes mentioned above take place that move governmental policies forward and repair the structural inequalities and the myriad areas of historical neglect. The future is full of opportunity if we have the vision and the will to grasp it, embrace it…then our dream will never die.
C. Kenneth Meyer is the Thomas F. Sheehan Distinguished Professor of Public Administration, College of Business and Public Administration, Drake University.
C. Kenneth Meyer is an author of numerous books on public personnel management, public management practice, violence in American society, public administration and public policy. He has published nearly 100 scholarly articles on a range of topics including: effective and efficient government, program evaluation, workplace violence, organizational training and development, policy evaluation, and public participation strategies.
During C. Kenneth Meyer’s 50 years of teaching at the university level, he has taught more than 45 diverse courses for the public administration field including public administration, public policy, research methods and statistics, empirical theory, international policy, American government, politics and public participation. Among these courses is an international award-winning comparative public management and public policy class incorporating a European study abroad component. The class is focused specifically on identifying the best worldwide practices in the public, nonprofit and private sectors. The information learned and resources gathered from these identified best models and best practices are incorporated in many of the cases presented in texts authored by Dr. Meyer and available at www.millenniumrmpress.com.
As an invited speaker, presenter and host for more than 50 presentations around the world, C. Kenneth Meyer keeps an active schedule speaking and consulting throughout North America, Europe and Asia.