Public Engagement and Crisis Management: Black Administrators Talk about Doing Public Work during a Pandemic.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed so many aspects of our lives. People have had to adopt new habits and routines as they take extraordinary measures to protect themselves, their families, and their communities. But imagine being in charge of, say, a county health department or a local housing program in the midst of this incredibly disruptive crisis.

During two Zoom learning exchanges in May and October of 2020, Black public administrators were asked to discuss their experiences both personal and professional as they struggled to adjust to the new realities of the spread of COVID-19 in their communities.

Since the onset of the pandemic, these managers have had to combine their day-to-day responsibilities with emergency responses, while in many cases working out of their homes or with skeletal shifts at their offices. Like many others, some of these managers have had to juggle their official duties with the additional responsibility of monitoring home-bound children or caring for vulnerable elders.

“It’s been a really tough year for doing public service,” noted Marcia Conner, executive director of the National Forum for Black Public Administrators (NFBPA) at the beginning of the October Zoom session. “No one could image that we would have a year like this.”

The learning exchanges were organized by the Kettering Foundation to explore ideas about democracy, public management, and the coproduction (citizens and government) of public goods. The participants were members of NFBPA’s Executive Leadership Institute (ELI), a program founded in 1987 to prepare African American public managers for leadership positions in public service organizations by sharpening their professional skills and capabilities.

Kettering’s research suggests that there are ways in which the routines of professionals and public institutions make citizens feel ignored and sidelined. The research also suggests that there is a profound problem of citizen distrust of public institutions, which hampers their ability to be productive. As Kettering Foundation President David Mathews recently wrote: “We need all of our governing institutions working effectively to deal with crises like the coronavirus pandemic. They can’t do that without being reinforced by the work citizens do.”

Personal and Professional Challenges

During one of the Zoon meetings, the division manager for the health department in a large city described the experience of having to send her daughter to live with relatives in a distant city because every day she was “coming home from a hot zone.”  Her city was working with FEMA to coordinate testing and tracing. She was also working on safely setting up early voting sites for the November 2020 election, working ten-hour days and forming new relationships with testing labs as well as her “regular job” of working with local health clinics.

“There are many unsung heroes, still picking up the trash, serving vulnerable populations, providing cash assistance, food stamps,” said a deputy county administrator from Ohio. “We serve seniors and look for strategies to keep them safe in their homes, working eight weeks without a day off.”

The director of a housing and neighborhood services agency said her city department was “busier than ever.” Nevertheless, she and her colleagues were pondering the question of “how to work democratically in a COVID environment.”

One participant described how her county was hit with a malware attack right before her office got a stay-at-home order. “We have been dealing with coronavirus response and recovering from the malware attack.” Her county government was also having to respond to an increase in child abuse cases, a social side effect of the pandemic.

An external affairs manager for a large city’s office of public administrator noted the impact of the coronavirus on a group of locally elected neighborhood representatives who were part of a commission that advised local government officials. “We haven’t seen those traditional channels,” he said. “We haven’t seen a lot of civic participation. A lot of people can’t work right now, and that has had a big impact.”

Obstacles to Public Engagement

Participants were asked how they were engaging the public in this time of crisis. There were a range of answers. Some cities already had impressive public engagement efforts going when the pandemic began to spread. Other cities were less far along.

Several noted that many residents were too concerned about basic needs to participate in public meetings. As one participant put it, “I’m not concerned with my neighborhood when I’m concerned about my water being cut off.”

One participant described the challenge of doing outreach on the U.S. Census count while helping with the local COVID-19 testing effort and finding new ways to deliver services. “We’re doing the best we can,” she said. She and her staff used to do home visits but now they are having to team-up with another agency, which has a bus, so they can meet with residents outside their homes.

“We are learning, but we are not there yet,” said another manager. “We have events all the time. They are advertised on social media. Not everybody subscribes to your social media feed account. Where do people go for help? What are we doing? We are struggling to get people to complete the census. We had a COVID testing site. Nobody knew where it was for a week.”

Others spoke of technology gaps that made it difficult to reach certain members of the public. For instance, many residents of one community had flip phones, which meant that they were unable to access the results of their COVID-19 tests, which could only be accessed with smart phones.

Another pointed to the need to look for “community partners” who are already working in certain communities, partnering with them and “realigning our practices, so we can meet people where they are and be better.”

Equity and Inclusion

The pandemic has not exactly been an equal opportunity crisis. Historically underserved communities in towns, cities and tribal areas have had higher than average mortality rates, much higher. Different cultures have experienced the crisis in very different ways.

The virus has had troubling implications for our divided political landscape, with mask wearing becoming a bizarre symbol of partisan identification, and the deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police have added a sense of urgency to the nation’s long conversation on race, equity, public safety, and justice.

One manager said her department was looking at public access to information from an “equity standpoint.” Even when the department provided non-English speaking communities with materials in their own languages, they couldn’t always read it because of illiteracy. They opted for videos with voiceovers from partner organizations, for instance, providing information on how to participate in activities and community events to reach out to community partners at the grassroots level.

Several of the participants described looking for ways to reach community members where they lived or gathered, for instance, a church or a foreign embassy. One manager noted the importance of being flexible and changing approaches if needed. “We are getting this right for some communities, for others, not so much.”

The head of a city’s human relations department had been meeting with faith leaders, discussing equity issues and ways of getting information to the public in five different languages. Her department had partnered with grassroots agencies, so they could do some of the translations. They are also working to update outdated materials and looking at the “justice served” population to adjust release dates, fines, and fees, and determine their ability to find shelter.

The HR director said they had been having “healthy conversations with agencies in the community” about the increased risk of COVID-19 for the homeless population and trying to look at how best to be prepared for when the moratorium on evictions is lifted and the “floodgates will open.” The department was preparing mediators and conciliators to “get in there and support the needs of tenants and landlords.”

Deep Listening

During a session that took place in 2019, before the pandemic, Valerie Lemmie, the Kettering Foundation’s Director of Exploratory Research, brought up the idea of using a “third ear” to really listen to members of the public in order to move beyond the distorting lenses or preconceptions that might get in the way of developing trust and working effectively with citizens.

The third ear is a concept first introduced in the late 1940s by the Viennese psychoanalyst Theodor Reik. A student of Freud’s, Reik wrote about need for the analyst to listen to a deeper level of what a patient is saying. Listening with a third ear means getting beyond the surface layer or the literal meaning of a person’s words and trying to interpret the feelings behind them.

Despite the challenges associated with the pandemic, these public administrators were balancing their everyday responsibilities with a willingness to innovate and to listen to the communities they serve. One participant used the term “scared humility” to describe his attitude toward the work he was doing on housing and equity issues.

“We’re fearful in terms of making the wrong decision and causing some delayed response or delayed time,” he said. “Scared humility—we have been forced to be humble, to listen, to collaborate, but still feel fearful about: did we give too much attention to one community and not another?”

“People learn most from the challenges and obstacles they have to overcome, things that are easy we tend to forget,” noted Lemmie.

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