Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

How Courageous Leadership Can Help a Community Through a Pandemic

As they deal with an emergency like the novel coronavirus, mayors and county executives need to be ready to ask their residents to sacrifice, break bureaucratic rules, and move quickly and decisively.

Emergency hospital during 1918 pandemic
Emergency hospital during 1918 pandemic.
Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine
Last week the Ash Center at the Harvard Kennedy School hosted an online meeting that brought together more than 20 senior officials from America's largest cities and Professor Marc Lipsitch, director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, to help frame out facts and options in dealing with the novel coronavirus pandemic, a situation that none of the participants has experienced before.

The exchange raised complex new questions and at the same time highlighted the extraordinary importance of mayors, as well as those who hold corresponding elected positions in county government, who must make painful decisions while accomplishing the seemingly inconsistent goals of communicating bad news in a way that inspires confidence.

Mayors must ask their residents to sacrifice before the full potential horror of the COVID-19 pandemic becomes visible; if these efforts are successful, residents may never appreciate the full scope of the avoided pain. Elected officials must make decisions that will cause residents to lose wages and small business owners to potentially shut down amid the cascading economic impacts of public service disruptions, program shutdowns and canceled events. If not communicated clearly and in a way that overcomes confusion in the national message, this call to action could create a sense of government inflicting pain needlessly rather than responding prudently to a serious public health emergency.

The spread of the virus highlights one of a senior elected official's most important roles: calling the public to action to respond to a crisis. Officials who understand the importance of this role take actions on a daily basis that build trust and their capacity to rally the public. They do this through the ongoing transparency, clarity and accuracy of their messages. And they do this by seeing that essential services continue to be delivered, displaying their jurisdictions' resiliency and dependability in times of hurricanes, floods or pandemics.

The importance of calling the public to action is critical as we move from a mindset that we can contain the pandemic and impose sacrifice on only those who are ill to the concept that the only way to mitigate it is through everyone sacrificing a bit. The need for social distancing will stress the daily order of communities as never before. Leadership in this situation includes listening carefully to local and national public health experts, weighing the harms that will result from certain actions, and then acting quickly and decisively. It's the mitigation of the mitigation that takes creativity: school lunches for children no longer in school, child care for single-parent health-care workers and much more.

Lipsitch referred us to an event from history that showed the difference that courageous leadership can make: the stark comparison between the way Philadelphia and St. Louis handled the 1918 influenza pandemic. Philadelphia failed to cancel important events, including a massive war-bonds parade, and suffered five times the number of flu deaths as St. Louis, which took strong social distancing steps much earlier.

Which brings us to another tenet of effective local leadership in an emergency, the need to stretch and overcome bureaucratic rules that strangle and slow everyday decision-making. I remember the first time I heard Mitch Weiss, now a professor at Harvard Business School but who at the time of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 was chief of staff to Mayor Thomas Menino, describe proudly how many rules he broke to get a fund set up to help those hurt by the explosions. Mayors have emergency authority much broader than many might realize, and they should use it.

The effective use of emergency powers has been a hallmark of the response to the current pandemic in Seattle, one of the country's hottest spots for the coronavirus. Fortunately, Seattle's local government is one with extraordinary capacity. Deputy Mayor Michael Fong catalogues the tough issues officials are wrestling with, such as whether to impose a moratorium on residential evictions at a time of isolation and quarantine; how to stand up financial assistance programs for struggling small businesses and their workers; and what to do about isolation and depression among older adults who can no longer congregate for meals and activities in senior centers.

"I think the most critical lesson is the willingness to move quickly and take decisive action without the typical deliberative government process," Fong says. "There is no time to study an issue or pilot a program or do community engagement. The time to act was yesterday, and mayors are on the front lines where their decisions could save lives."

Make no mistake: Cities need federal help — dollars, public health expertise, technical support such as test kits, and more. But mayors who meet the challenge of rallying the public when the virus's full harm is not yet evident, who know which rules they can break, and who are prepared to move against their normal goals of promoting civic events and economic activity will see the payoff as the pandemic subsides. Their cities will come out of this crisis more like St. Louis and less like Philadelphia a century ago.

We have been receiving responses to this column and would like to share the Ash Center's resources page with our readers. Please stay in touch.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing editors or management.

Article photo: Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine - Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic (NCP 1603), National Museum of Health and Medicine., CC BY 2.0, Link

A professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program. He can be reached at stephen_goldsmith@harvard.edu.
Special Projects
Sponsored Stories
Sponsored
In recent years, local governments have been forced to adapt to a wildly changing world, especially as it pertains to sending bills and collecting payments.
Sponsored
Workplace safety is in the spotlight as government leaders adapt to a prolonged pandemic.
Sponsored
While government employees, students and the general public had to wait in line for hours in the beginning of the pandemic, at-home test kits make it easy to diagnose for the novel coronavirus in less than 30 minutes.
Sponsored
Governments around the nation are working to design the best vaccine policies that keep both their employees and their residents safe. Although the latest data shows a variety of polarizing perspectives, there are clear emerging best practices that leading governments are following to put trust first: creating policies that are flexible and provide a range of options, and being in tune with the needs and sentiments of their employees so that they are able to be dynamic and accommodate the rapidly changing situation.
Sponsored
Service delivery and the individual experience within health and human services (HHS) is often very siloed and fragmented.
Sponsored
In this episode, Marianne Steger explains why health care for Pre-Medicare retirees and active employees just got easier.
Sponsored
Government organizations around the world are experiencing the consequences of plagiarism firsthand. A simple mistake can lead to loss of reputation, loss of trust and even lawsuits. It’s important to avoid plagiarism at all costs, and government organizations are held to a particularly high standard. Fortunately, technological solutions such as iThenticate allow government organizations to avoid instances of text plagiarism in an efficient manner.
Sponsored
Creating meaningful citizen experiences in a post-COVID world requires embracing digital initiatives like secure and ethical data sharing, artificial intelligence and more.
Sponsored
GHD identified four themes critical for municipalities to address to reach net-zero by 2050. Will you be ready?