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Stark Warning Reminds Us That Local Governments Are on the Front Lines and NOT Just for Covid-19

A stark warning reminds us that local governments are on the front lines of the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic. They employ the police and first responders, manage much of the day to day communication with citizens about social distancing and business/venue closures and will likely drive the crucial testing, contract tracing and isolation/quarantine programs necessary to reopen the economy.

Local government officials, in a first of its kind survey about their thoughts on pandemic management plans, provide a stark warning about both the expected public compliance with such measures and their ability and willingness to achieve the compliance necessary to contain the pandemic. The research was conducted by CivicPulse, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization focused on generating insights about local government through national surveys of local officials.

The gist of CivicPulse’s latest report findings is this:

  • The vast majority of elected officials in local governments believe that their community’s voluntary compliance with social distancing and other COVID-19 restrictions will decline within 3 months, AND
  • Local governments are relying primarily on encouragement – not enforcement – to achieve citizen compliance with Covid-19 restrictions. They do not have the resources nor the desire to shift to an enforcement-based approach to maintain compliance.

Locally elected officials are telling us that their communities will soon start “opening up” REGARDLESS of what federal, state, or local policies are in place. Or, as CivicPulse put it in their report, “As state and federal policymakers begin answering the question of when to open up, they must work closely with local governments to make sure their policies reflect this reality on the ground.”

By and large, they are not doing this today.

Local governments are on the front lines of many issues, not just on battling Covid-19. And not just in 2020, but every year. And therefore, involving local governments and their officials is critical to sound policymaking and maximizing citizen welfare.

Sometimes we slip into thinking about our “levels of government” as a hierarchy, with the federal government on top and local governments at the bottom. That mental map is wrong and leads to mistakes, like ignoring the practical knowledge that local officials have about how their communities will react to various policies.

Instead, visualize our levels of governments as concentric circles, with local governments smaller, but closer to individual citizens, and the federal government largest and furthest. Each circle has its strength (and weaknesses), and we’re all better off when we take advantage of as many strengths as possible.

In other words, despite their (generally) smaller size, the work that local governments do is essential, their proximity with their communities yields essential insights, and incorporating what local government officials know about their local communities is, in many cases, essential for effective policy-making.

By extension, this means that organizations that help local governments serve their citizens more efficiently and effectively are doing critical work too. The CivicPulse report provides a dramatic example. The report’s findings imply that the ability of local governments to communicate with and engage their communities in ways that increase voluntary compliance with social distancing (and related) restrictions will be hugely impactful. How critical, then, are the software, products, and services that better enable local governments to communicate and engage!

Let’s hope that the CivicPulse report serves as a wake-up call to federal and state officials to include local governments in critical policy decisions, not just for on battling Covid-19, but on all issues with a direct and critical impact on communities.

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