We Need More Investment in Government. Yes, Now.

Only public institutions can cope with an emergency like the coronavirus. Despite intensifying budget pressures, we must rebuild the capacity to respond to the needs of the future.

Long term, government needs to continue investing in a number of core areas, including health care, technology and talent. (Shutterstock)
You don't often see a letter to the editor in the newspaper complaining that we don't have enough bureaucrats. But the COVID-19 crisis has shown how truly vital these government employees and the essential services they provide are to our daily lives.

As we face a public health crisis of epic proportions, it's clear that no amount of charity or free-market solutions can meet the scope of the coronavirus pandemic. Only our public institutions can offer solutions at the scale we need. When we don't make the necessary investments in these institutions and the people who run them, the consequences are counted in lives lost.

In the midst of a crisis, it's hard to look beyond the immediate threat. To be sure, we must dramatically expand testing, resource our health-care professionals with the protective equipment and ventilators they need, and support the tens of millions of Americans who have filed for unemployment assistance. The passage of the $2 trillion federal CARES Act is a step in the right direction, but at best it is only stanching the bleeding.

We missed our chance to prevent the wound when we eliminated the National Security Council's pandemic response team and cut nearly a quarter of our state and local health department workforce. If we want our governments to work in the worst of times, we need to invest in them during the best of times. For years, we've done the opposite.

This is particularly true for our state and local governments, which have borne the greatest burden of responding to the COVID-19 crisis in the absence of adequate federal action. States, cities and counties are building temporary hospitals, working to secure child care for front-line workers and issuing moratoriums on evictions. But due to a legacy of disinvestment, these efforts to rapidly scale up response capacity are falling short.

This isn't surprising. In the five years following the 2008 financial crisis, states faced $600 billion in cumulative budget shortfalls, which, along with similar fiscal challenges at the local level, contributed to a decline in public-sector employment and services. This pain has been particularly acute in our state and local health departments, which have lost more than 50,000 jobs since 2008, but this story has played out across government. The pressure on our public-sector employees has increased as they are asked to do more with less. But with tax revenues plummeting as a result of stay-at-home orders and business closings, we're already seeing hiring freezes and furloughs, and more will follow in the weeks to come.

In times of crisis, we should be able to count on our governments to respond effectively. Here are a few steps we should take now — even in the face of extraordinary budgetary pressures — to build government systems that can respond to our needs in the future:

Invest in talent. The COVID-19 crisis shows that we need a robust government workforce that is positioned to address 21st-century challenges. We must provide advancement opportunities to exceptional public employees and encourage millennials and members of Generation Z to pursue public-service careers.

Evolve antiquated government technologies. State and local government IT infrastructure has not kept pace in an era when more people are relying on government services. These problems, exposed by high demand amid the current crisis, suggest that the state of our government technologies poses a persistent lurking threat.

Maintain public pressure for good policy. Innovative policy actions — from expanding voting by mail to reducing administrative burdens for social services — should be part of the coronavirus response. We as citizens must demand and support innovation by state and local government, particularly protections for vulnerable and marginalized populations.

Now that we see the consequences of inaction, perhaps we'll be more open to making the necessary investments in our state and local governments before the next crisis. This is a moment to do more than hope. Let's not squander it.

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

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