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Group Urges States to Learn From Lessons of the Pandemic

By Kelley Griffin  |  April 4, 2023

During the pandemic, states made major changes in regulations at lightning speed, revamping how the public got driver’s licenses, unemployment insurance and business licenses. They created flexibility in sectors including health care and restaurants, and revised environmental regulations to account for pandemic limits on enforcement. 

A new study by the National Academy of Public Administrators explores how 10 states massively adapted regulations in the midst of the upheaval. Neil Kerwin, a fellow with NAPA who chaired the study group, says it was as if states were “building a couple of planes at the same time they’re running down the runway.” It was an effort the former president of American University and professor of public administration and policy describes as “herculean.” 

Nancy Augustine, who directs NAPA’s Center for Intergovernmental Partnerships and led the research team, agrees. 

“During the pandemic, states had to address at least four major challenges nearly simultaneously: a public health crisis, disruption to government operations, financial volatility and economic distress.” —Nancy Augustine, NAPA

“There are all kinds of emergencies that states and local government prepare for, but that kind of (pandemic) disruption is not something that they prepared for,” she says. “So they had to figure it out, and they figured it out pretty quickly.”

The report sums up the scope of this effort: “During the pandemic, states had to address at least four major challenges nearly simultaneously: a public health crisis, disruption to government operations, financial volatility and economic distress.” 

To manage all that, states had “to establish new systems, create or adapt rules, and develop implementation strategies quickly,” the study says. “For every new area of activity, they may have designed new processes, established internal protocols, expedited decision-making, disseminated information, arranged for management and staffing capacity, monitored uptake, prepared reports and evaluated performance.” 

Some of the changes remain in place. The question now: Should they?

Figuring Out What Worked, What to Keep

“There was a lot of innovation, and at this point, we don’t really know what was most effective,” Kerwin says. “We know what people thought was effective, but it’s not like we have evaluations to say what worked best.”

That kind of evaluation, the researchers say, is a critical next step.

The report is an overview, but it also drills down on the work in 10 states: Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon and Virginia.

States streamlined rules so the health system could meet demand, including through telehealth and approving out-of-state licensing. They turned over public spaces to allow restaurants to remain open with outdoor dining, sidestepping some safeguards; they extended alcohol licenses to these public spaces.

States made it easier for new businesses to launch. Startups soared during the pandemic.

“I think the crisis accelerated an entrepreneurial spirit that was probably out there and latent but made all the more urgent by the fact that their sources of income had been destroyed, at least temporarily,” Kerwin says.

And states had to manage an enormous increase in the number of people accessing unemployment benefits. 

For example, the Kansas state workforce agency got 12.5 million calls in April 2020 but could only answer 70,000. Unemployment claims jumped more than 1,000% from February to April that year. In Washington, the workforce agency received more than 180,000 claims in March 2020; that’s up from a typical high volume of 10,000 claims a month. 

All of this while figuring out how to do much of the state’s work remotely. 

Kerwin says it’s clear “government is still capable of responding in a crisis.” What’s not clear is whether the revisions can serve for the long haul. 

“We don’t know, given the ultimate purpose of regulation, public health and safety, how much, if any, it was sacrificed as a result of the need to expedite this type of regulatory relief,” Kerwin says. “The regulatory relief that was acceptable in a crisis may not be acceptable in a more fully functional economy.” 

The NAPA researchers want states to explore that, and they have a sense of urgency. 

Augustine says this trove of experiences across the states is already getting lost. 

She says that when researchers interviewed people in the states, “to a person, every single one of them said, ‘Wow, before you asked me, I hadn’t really thought about what we went through.’ So I think the vast majority of state and local governments were probably so focused on getting through the emergency that they didn’t take the time to reflect or even record what happened, so the whole human capital aspect of it, the institutional knowledge, is vanishing into the ether.” 

That’s why the NAPA study urges more research to gain the deepest understanding possible of what worked for states in the recent crisis and what could work better in the event of another one.

Kelley Griffin is a senior editor at NCSL.

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