Government on the Front Line

Today’s post comes to us from Workforce Institute board member, Neil Reichenberg. Neil is the executive director of the International Public Management Association for Human Resources and has researched and written extensively about HR and labor relations in the public sector and given speeches around the world including at the United Nations and in testimony before the US Congress. Here he discusses the critical importance of government on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” President Ronald Reagan, 1981 Inaugural Address 

I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub. Grover Norquist, President, Americans for Tax Reform 

The above quotes reflect sentiments that, over a period of many years, have resulted in the short-sighted underfunding of government in the United States. Yet, as we have seen before, when there is a crisis, such as the current global pandemic caused by COVID-19 (Coronavirus), it is government that leads the fight. We need to recognize the crucial role that government plays in the lives of its citizens and ensure that it has the needed resources to effectively combat crises.   

Once COVID-19 is brought under the control, we need to step back and give further thought to the role of government in disasters, determine the processes and infrastructure that need to be developed, and ensure that government has all the resources it needs to meet any challenge.  

Some specific areas I would suggest considering are: 

  • Emergency Responders and Health Care Workers – Emergency responders such as police, fire and emergency medical staff are being exposed to risks that are resulting in a disproportionately high number contracting COVID-19 or being exposed so that they wind up in quarantine. The New York Times reported on April 3rd that 1 out of 6 New York City police officers were either out sick or in quarantine. In Detroit, it was reported that 20% of the police force is quarantined. Moving forward, governments need to think about how best to provide the required level of staffing for jobs that don’t lend themselves to being filled through the gig economy. They also need to find better ways to assist their emergency responders in dealing with the heightened risk they are being exposed to and their increased anxiety.   
  • Managing a Remote Workforce – Due to stay-at-home orders, many government employees are working remotely. Not all governments were prepared to provide their employees with the technological tools that they need. Governments had to rapidly transition much of their workforce to remote work with the challenges of how to stay connected and ensure productivity and accountability. A recent survey by the Institute for Employment Studies in Great Britain found that half of those working from home during the lockdown were not happy with their work-life balance, with 1/3 feeling isolated, and health and job security concerns causing sleep loss for 64%. Additionally, over half reported new aches and pains probably caused by not having proper work areas in their homes. Governments – like all employers – need to have a better plan in place for remote working moving forward. 
  • Redeployment of Workers – Some governments have a need for additional workers in some areas and a decreased need in other areas. Employees may resist being assigned to work that they perceive to be high risk, such as working in homeless shelters, creating staffing challenges. For those in unionized environments, redeployment of employees potentially has an added level of complexity. Giving thought to how to more effectively redeploy workers in crisis situations will be an important exercise as life returns to a more normal state. 
  • Heightened Stress/Anxiety – All employers are dealing with the heightened stress and anxiety of their employees. This is especially true for governments, some of which have suffered the deaths of employees and had significant numbers of employees become infected. Taking a look at what resources can be deployed to help alleviate this stress and what training can take place to help better prepare employees will be an important area of reflection for governments. 
  • Hiring – Prior to COVID-19, governments were facing staffing shortages in a variety of crucial positions. Many have stopped hiring except to fill critical vacancies. Some are trying to figure out what to do with those who accepted positions but have not yet joined the government workforce. Creative ways to onboard new employees need to be developed.   

The global pandemic has reminded us, once again, that when things fall apart, it’s government with its heroic emergency responders and health care workers, that we look to for help. While cutting costs and corners may make a balance sheet look better in the short-run, it’s dangerous and deeply unfair to those we rely on in difficult times. 

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