Hopscotching ahead to the world to come

October 26, 2020

By Donald F. Kettl, the Sid Richardson Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of The Divided States of America: Why Federalism Doesn’t Work (Princeton University Press, 2020)


It’s impossible to remember any recent time that the work of state and local governments has been buffeted by more fierce winds. Almost all of the hard work for tackling COVID-19 has fallen to statehouses and city halls. The collapsing economy has drained tax revenues, and federal dithering on the aid package has made it impossible to figure out just how a deep hole they find themselves in. State and local government leaders have had to juggle all these issues with their employees scattered in unprecedented distance working.

It’s déjà vu all over again, as the late great New York Yankees philosopher Yogi Berra put it. No sooner had state and local governments begun to recover from the 2008 economic collapse that they now find themselves hit by a unique, super-complex second wave of crises. It’s going to take a long time to recover from this one—perhaps until 2030, as the Congressional Budget Office projects.

These hits over the last dozen years have shell-shocked state and local officials focusing on just putting one foot in front of another. They’re sailing through unpredictable waves in boats that risk taking on a lot of water. That makes it hard for them to think about anything much more than surviving the crisis that absorbs them today, to plan for the next one.

That might be inevitable, but it could also prove tragic, for two reasons. First, in a world with few certainties, state and local government officials two years from now are sure to find themselves in a fundamentally different, perhaps unrecognizable world. There is substantial research that the very fundamentals of work are changing, with more focus on effective problem solving through teams and more reliance on sense-making through data. COVID has accelerated a fundamental transformation already underway. In fact, we are stumbling forward into a world we were bound to confront anyway.

There’s no going back to a pre-COVID normal. There will be no “new normal.” There’s certain to be a different world where the pace of change will accelerate and where public institutions will need to run fast not only to keep up but, more importantly to lead the effort. COVID has fundamentally changed downtowns (with challenges to the centers of large cities and fuel for pods of development in regions), retail (with online services squeezing out brick-and-mortar operations), food and grocery delivery (with people discovering they can get the food they need without having to spend time in grocery aisles), among many others.

The private sector is quickly moving—awkwardly, perhaps, but moving for sure—to a very different ongoing strategy. If government gets trapped in a head-down, one-step-in-front-of-another approach, its leaders could find themselves lagging further behind fast-moving economic changes. State and local government officials could wake up in 2023 and discover they are unable to lead in the issues that matter most to them.

What’s more, tsunami of issues facing state and local governments can blind leaders to the fact that they share so many common links. COVID-19, recommendations to “defund the police,” , the future of downtowns—all are different squares of the same quilt. They’re all mega-disrupters. None fit within the traditional bureaucracy or many strategies for decision analysis

It may be possible to develop a single, unifying approach to tackle all of them, with a common governance framework. All are complex problems that require complex/multi-level/multi-jurisdictional/multi-sectoral strategies. All depend heavily on both data and foresight. And all have deeply embedded in them critically important issues of inequity—and in most of those areas, the implications are huge but subtle and not often even discussed.

And that means it’s possible—now—to devise a unifying approach to tackle the biggest problems that state and local governments are facing. However, the odds are stacked against doing so, because everyone these days are so focused on the next 15 minutes. That could mean we wake up two years from now with an enormous and growing governance-and-trust deficit on our hands.

Or: we could start now, by probing and experimenting with new strategies, to get ahead of the changes that are certain to happen—and to test new strategies and tactics. The world is already setting the table for the kind of governance we will be needing for the future, a governance based in problem-oriented teams, citizen-centered programs, and data-driven programs.

If the crisis is unprecedented, so too is the opportunity. If only we have our wits about us.