Pandemic and the Plight of American Public Policy

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The pandemic afflicting the world has exposed many weaknesses and flaws. One of these is surely America’s ability to design, coordinate, and implement effective public policy in the face of a crisis. How can a nation that produces some of the world’s most innovative technology, is home to the planet’s most impressive companies, and is the center of global finance and capitalism come up so short in governmental responses?

There are a variety of causes that go well beyond a president unsuited to the challenge.



Philip Zelikow, in an important article in the Texas National Security Review, highlighted the need to improve what and how we teach about public affairs. His focus is on what he calls the software of policymaking:

Bad policymaking is almost unavoidable when policymakers undertake complex and difficult work without adequate training or preparation. Unfortunately, a lack of adequate training or preparation seems to be the norm among American policymakers today.

Zelikow, Francis Fukuyama, and other scholars produced a manifesto in 2019 that highlights the dismal state of America’s “system of educating and training people to solve public problems.” Why has the United States allowed this situation to develop?

American society disincentivizes the study and pursuit of excellence and innovation in public affairs. Go to most major university campuses, and it is easy to determine what our institutions of higher learning value, both by the amount of real estate they occupy and the quality of the buildings housing various disciplines and pursuits. Business and law schools often have their own well-appointed campuses. Engineering departments, especially those producing cutting-edge and easily commercialized technology, inhabit gleaming new buildings. Some of our best universities are, in fact, dominated by medical schools and multi-billion-dollar hospital systems. Athletic facilities often dwarf the buildings dedicated to teaching students. Most of these edifices proudly bear the names of generous benefactors, which include prominent corporations, philanthropists, and distinguished alumni.

Prospective students understand these powerful signals. Our smartest young people flock to graduate programs in law, business, engineering, science, and medicine and are richly rewarded, both financially and with prestige, for entering these professions. As a result, the United States is a world leader in generating new technology and ideas in these fields, to the great benefit of our economy and society.

The same is not true for schools of public and international policy. Many universities do not support independent schools of public affairs, domestic or global. Those that do often treat them like unwelcome stepchildren, far removed from what is assumed to be the core mission of the university. Unlike other professional programs, public affairs alumni rarely go on to generate large fortunes that can someday be regifted to campuses. Nor is public policy recognized as a pure, laudable pursuit, such as the humanities or social and physical sciences. Graduates in the liberal arts may not become wealthy, but they are not compromised by what is often seen as the low and unpopular practice of politics and political bureaucracy. There are no Pulitzer or Nobel prizes for the best new ideas in governance and public policy.

This does not have to be the case. In other countries, the best and the brightest are encouraged to pursue public policy. Great prestige is associated with government service. It is not an accident that governments in East Asia, from Singapore to South Korea to China — countries that place a higher premium on policy excellence — have performed so much better than the United States during the current crisis. The determining factor may be less the form of government — democracy or autocracy — than a tradition of recognizing that effective public policy and governance is vital to effectively handling complex problems. Status, and in the case of Singapore, private-sector compensation, attracts top young talent to public policy.

The tragedy is all the greater as the United States was once a world leader in creative, effective public policy. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States faced a myriad of crippling problems brought on by rapid industrialization, immigration, and urbanization. In 1887, future American President and then-scholar Woodrow Wilson charged research-based public administration with the task to “discover, first, what government can properly and successfully do, and, secondly, how it can do these proper things with the utmost possible efficiency and at the least possible cost either of money or of energy.” His motto shaped Progressive Era policies that, over time, dramatically improved public health, decreased crime, improved housing and education, reformed politics, and transformed job safety in early 20th-century America. This tradition was reaffirmed through novel and innovative policies developed and implemented during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s forward-looking New Deal. The best minds were attracted to public affairs and governance, and their efforts were widely applauded. The practices and institutions they developed made an enormous difference in the lives of everyday Americans and made United States governance and policies the envy of the world in the middle of the 20th century.

Similar expertise, prestige, and resources were once applied to problems of foreign policy. Policy experts from the State Department, the Brookings Institution, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics crafted and implemented the European Recovery Program, or the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild and relaunch Western European economies devastated by World War II. The United States did not simply turn over money to its European partners. It developed innovative institutions and suggested far-sighted policies that dramatically increased European productivity and integration. Facing the profound consequences of nuclear weapons, American universities and think tanks like the RAND Corporation recruited the best minds to develop policies to contain the potential catastrophic consequences of the bomb. These intellectuals, with backgrounds ranging from physics to economics to history, both engaged with policymakers and served in the federal government. The result was the intellectual architecture of arms control, which led to consequential treaties such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties.

What happened to this expert policy elite and the prestige once accorded to governance and policy innovation? To be sure, since its earliest days, American society has been suspicious of government and bureaucracy. Rugged individualism, entrepreneurship, and the power of the market have been the guiding philosophies shaping American political culture, with undeniable success. Yet this suspicion took on a darker tenor in more recent history. The disasters of the Vietnam War, the perceived problems of the Great Society, and the scandals of Watergate severely tarnished the reputation of government, bureaucracy, and public policy experts. Over the past few decades, the United States has almost fetishized the power of technology, finance, and markets to deliver improvements to society without regulation or guidance from the state. We have generated extraordinary wealth and new technologies but have often ignored the profound socioeconomic challenges these changes have wrought domestically and globally, which only better governance and public policy can ameliorate.

Slow-burning and complex crises ranging from the opioid epidemic and inequality to climate change to political polarization and disinformation have revealed the desperate need for the United States to generate more innovative and effective public policies and governance practices. Even before the novel coronavirus, it was clear that America’s domestic and international governing practices, ideas, and institutions were falling short. Created to deal with the problems of a 20th-century industrialized world, America’s conception of governance and public policy has failed to adequately address the profound socioeconomic and political disruptions brought on by intensifying globalization and what has been called the second machine age. The new world of transnational challenges no longer follows our antiquated separation of domestic from international challenges.

A vicious cycle has been unleashed: under-resourced and unappreciated, governance and policy lack the means to provide solutions to complex problems of the 21st century. Like a spreading cancer, these failures have eaten away at the public legitimacy of our governing institutions and practices, further undermining our ability to meet new challenges. Expertise is derided, government officials are labeled members of a “swamp,” and officials interested in America’s engagement with the world are mocked as self-dealing members of a “blob,” or — worse — “the deep state.” Instead of pouring much-needed resources and innovation into governance, bureaucracy and public affairs are held in lower and lower esteem as the United States waits, often in vain, for technology and the private sector to fix problems they are not designed to solve.

The COVID-19 crisis exacerbates the overwhelming challenges our government officials face. The pandemic forces decision-makers to grapple with radical uncertainty and a crippling lack of knowledge about the virus and its consequences. While the complexity of the problem should induce humility, social media and political pressures accelerate the proliferation of overly confident “hot takes,” the majority of which may, in time, turn out to be wrong. Good policy requires balancing competing norms and interests while assessing risks, tradeoffs, and unintended consequences and negotiating variable time horizons. It must also coordinate and communicate effectively with a wide range of actors — national and global, federal and local, governmental and nongovernmental. It must integrate knowledge and expertise from a diverse range of disciplines, including public health and epidemiology, statistical modeling, medicine, economics, law, politics, sociology, logistics and supply chains, international relations, sociology, behavioral psychology, and ethics.

Without effective and innovative mechanisms to process massive amounts of often conflicting or incomplete information, decision-making can become paralyzed. Yet complexity and uncertainty cannot inhibit action. As Henry Kissinger observed, “When the scope for action is greatest, knowledge on which to base such action is small or ambiguous. When knowledge becomes available, the ability to affect events is usually at a minimum.” Policymakers ought to also recognize that there are rarely “magic bullets” and that strategies that appear optimal to an economist or epidemiologist may be politically infeasible or generate worse second- and third-order effects. Good public policy can guide “second-best” solutions, which can be implemented more quickly and with greater consensus. It also builds in processes to assess and evaluate, in real time, the effectiveness of different approaches and allows for flexibility and adaptability if a new policy is needed.

The knowledge base, talent, and skills needed to improve policy and governance in the United States require the same kind of large-scale intellectual, cultural, and financial investment American society currently provides to develop social media apps or creative Wall Street financial instruments. This should start in our world-class universities. As Zelikow argues, “Policymaking is a discipline, a craft, and a profession. … Effective policymaking is difficult.” To make it better, we need to change societal incentives to ones that appreciate the difficulty and importance of policy. To be clear, this can and should be done without denigrating our existing strengths in other fields, from technology to medicine to finance. In fact, better policymaking would allow the U.S. government to better coordinate, deploy, and exploit these extraordinary capabilities for the public benefit.

The pandemic has illustrated how ill-equipped we are to generate and implement the innovative public policies and trusted governance needed to rise to our current historic moment. This should be a wake-up call: this will not be the last time the United States must deal with a complex and dangerous crisis demanding skilled policymaking. We have the world’s best scientists, engineers, doctors, and financiers. Let’s make sure the next time a crisis hits, we also have the best ideas and practices in public policy and governance.



Francis J. Gavin is the Giovanni Agnelli Distinguished Professor and the inaugural director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University.  He is also the the Chairman of the Board of Editors of the Texas National Security Review. His latest book, Nuclear Weapons and American Grand Strategy, was published by Brookings Institution Press in January 2020.

Image: Pixabay (Photo by Mark Thomas)



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