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Rheostat Government: Replacing the On/Off Switch with a Dimmer

When the coronavirus pandemic begins to subside, communities should use a nuanced, calibrated approach to allowing businesses to reopen and residents to return to work and school.

Two friends in different states told me similar stories recently about how social distancing was being enforced at parks with relatively isolated hiking trails. Because getting to the trails caused too many people to use the same narrow steps or park their cars too close together, access was blocked for everyone.

Clearly government needs to take action in these kinds of situations, which it did in this case the way it knows best: by throwing a switch — you are open or you are closed. But when the coronavirus nightmare begins to subside, state and local officials will face difficult decisions about when and how to begin reviving local economies by allowing residents to return to work and visit shops and restaurants. It will be a time for officials to embrace rheostat government, replacing the binary on/off switch with a dimmer. Instead of closing the park, perhaps meter the number of people climbing the steps or parking cars, or even the hours the park is open, to spread out usage.

Nuanced, calibrated use of regulatory powers can help local governments in metering normal life back on. Mayors and county executives should use their public health and public safety authority both broadly and discretely. Fire departments that rate the safe capacity of spaces could take into account, for example, how a restaurant spaces customers or uses in-phone or disposable menus. Decisions on whether merchants can be open might vary by those willing to utilize only point-of-sale technology that doesn't require touching, such as Apple Pay, Google Pay or contactless credit cards.

Local building codes and related security rules should also be examined to include a new set of at least temporary requirements. Officials could immediately consider a range of new options, from revised regulations for air handling to controls on touching an elevator button or requiring a visitor to hand an identification card to a security guard.

For large cities, the gradual movement toward full activity should be data-driven and calibrated by geography, using anonymized geocoded public health information to identify COVID-19 hot spots for special rules and assistance. Once coronavirus testing becomes widely available, for example, it may not be necessary to keep every school closed if only one remains a hot spot. Executive orders on masks and gloves can be tailored and eased depending on the data.

Calibration should reach deeply into the processes of government as well, to protect both the public and its servants and to set a standard for private business. Cities have the capacity and authority to reduce the risk of contagion with contactless governance: Give every traffic officer hardware to scan, not touch, the driver's license of a person stopped. Don't leave parking tickets on windshields; scan violators' license plates and send the ticket electronically or by mail. Bag every parking meter and require the use of payment apps, while allowing the unbanked to use debit and other stored-value cards. Imagine dozens more examples of these rather basic steps.

As for government offices, a gradual return to normalcy doesn't simply mean that some are opened and others remain closed. Rather, it means we change the way we produce government. Every bureaucratic process that switches from paper to digital reduces contacts and risks. Just as with private industry, many more public servants, from call-center agents to office workers processing digital forms, could work from home.

Nuanced governance paves the way to normalcy just as much with rhetoric as with force. A better future depends on catalyzing broad, permanent changes in public behavior. Local campaigns that turn civic pride into safer behaviors can play a significant role. As chair of AmeriCorps, I remember working with White House officials within days of the 9/11 attacks to enlist Americans in helping others in their cities as a way to strengthen the civic infrastructure. We can do the same thing now, but it requires expecting residents to model good behavior and call out the bad.

Enforcement may not seem much like nuance, but it allows a faster return to normalcy by not penalizing everyone because of the risks taken by a few. If changing containers used to package and pick up trash reduces contagion, for example, everyone should be expected to comply. And enforcement can be combined with large doses of discretion. Police officers increasingly are allowed to exercise their discretion to make fewer arrests for minor offenses.

Binary government, just like binary thinking, may be easier but it often results in false choices. These times call for nuance. Let's dial that rheostat up by regulating and managing risk discretely, calibrated by what the data shows about the conditions and situations in specific communities. We will more quickly get millions of Americans safely back to work and school.

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

A professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program. He can be reached at
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