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MANAGEMENT UPDATE.

HANDLING THE NEXT CRISIS: LESSONS FROM THE PANDEMIC

If there’s one silver lining around the deadly cloud called COVID, it would be the lessons that governments can learn from the mistakes that were made during this time.


New Jersey has attempted to take advantage of this dubious opportunity, by digging deeply into its response to the pandemic in a recently release 910-page report titled “Independent Review of New Jersey's Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic," which was completed on March 7, 2024.  According to an executive order signed by New Jersey’s Gov. Phil Murphy, on March 22, the report has been the "only comprehensive after-action review of a state government's response to COVID-19 in the entire nation.” 



Of course, all the observations and findings in the world don’t do any good if there’s no follow through. That’s why the executive order from the governor is important, as it created a task force to evaluate the report’s findings maintaining that "it is necessary for Executive Branch departments and agencies in New Jersey to study the report and its recommendations and to integrate the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic into their operations and planning for future emergencies."


[Note: While we have no reason to doubt that this is truly a unique venture for a single state, there have been any number of reports drawing lessons from the pandemic, including one we wrote with Don Kettl for the IBM Center for the Business of Government, “Twelve Principles For Dealing With Viral Uncertainty.”]


Beyond the benefits to New Jersey that may emanate from its report, there are a number of ways that other states can benefit from this in-depth analysis. As the report’s introduction states, “We hope the report can serve as a playbook for New Jersey – a guide to putting in place the appropriate resources, plans, and processes – so that we can all be better prepared for the next major crisis. Let us learn from this horrific experience today so we can avoid another one tomorrow.” 


The 33 recommendations in the report have "implications for daily operations of the State in non-emergency situations, such as improvements in New Jersey’s public health infrastructure, efforts to promote health equity, and strategies to leverage technology in the State’s delivery of services to residents."


Some of the highlights:


  • “In general, the impacts of COVID-19 in New Jersey exposed areas where society or institutions were already weak. For example, the disproportionate mortality rate for Black and Hispanic New Jerseyans was not a result of COVID-19’s pathology, but the result of systemic inequities built into the health system long before the disease arrived.”


  • “Perennial challenges for state governments (in New Jersey and beyond) such as operating flexibly, expediting bureaucratic processes, and coordinating across agencies became likely failure points when COVID-19 upended regular operations and created a set of new demands which agencies needed to begin to fulfill on short notice.”


  • “The public health system requires ongoing investment; it cannot be ignored or underfunded for years and then be expected to become capable of handling a massive global crisis. An effective public health capability requires substantial and consistent financial support, including adequate staffing and compensation that attracts people with the necessary knowledge and skills to perform the vital tasks required of the NJDOH (Department of Health) and local health departments.


  • “Emergency plans do no good if those plans are put on a shelf and forgotten. In 2015, the NJDOH created a Pandemic Influenza Plan, which was extremely accurate in predicting what would eventually happen during the COVID-19 pandemic. It included specific recommendations about actions that could be taken; organizational structures for emergency management; and detailed factual, legal, and regulatory resources that could be consulted. Unfortunately, the 2015 Plan was not widely known within senior State leadership by the time COVID-19 hit.”


  • “Effective emergency preparation involves planning, periodic training / exercises, and people. The people in place must be familiar with the plan, adequately equipped and trained, and know who to work with in executing it. Several people in government told us they thought ‘some other agency’ ought to have an Emergency Preparedness Manager. In fact, that position exists (and is staffed) in the other agency, but the people we spoke with were unaware of that fact.”


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