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featuring guest blogger EMILY MEROLA (ND ‘20)

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, people have been affected by decisions made under crisis—they come from federal, state, and local government leadership, as well as from those overseeing operations large and small. The first time this principle was showcased clearly to me was this spring, when a cascade of states were judging for the first time since the outbreak whether or not to reopen some of their businesses and economic activity. At the time, some argued that this was a valuable step forward for staving off an even worse economic downturn. Others stressed that such a move would put the health of communities at risk and could only spur a worse downturn later on. Many of these state policies left businesses and workers to decide between lowering their risk for COVID-19, or returning to their work and/or income (a choice that some employees not only experienced, but faced discipline for). 

As policymakers, businesses, and individuals deliberated, a working paper received press about non-pharmaceutical public health interventions during the 1918 flu epidemic. Correia et al (2020)’s analysis generated buzz through its conclusion: doing what is best for public health doesn’t necessarily have to be at odds with doing what is best for eventual economic recovery. The article is aptly titled, “Pandemics depress the economy, public health interventions do not.”

    Upon first hearing of the paper at a panel about the economics of the COVID-19 epidemic, I was intrigued and hopeful. If I was a policymaker, I thought, I would take this result and run with it. Could you ask for more of a win-win? The second time I studied the article—this time reviewing it in detail and discussing it in a course—I was less brazen. The authors considered employment results in manufacturing, for instance, but didn’t include a similar analysis for wages or for other industries. Moreover, their study involved a pandemic that overlapped with the first World War. For these and other reasons, how well could the results in this study apply to current policy issues? The results of the research were still intriguing and hopeful, but I was ultimately more cautious about what they offered for my hypothetical exercise as a policy maker. As with learning more about any subject, I realized that I had only breached the surface of an important issue I was trying to understand.

    Deborah Stone’s Policy Paradox offers an extensive catalog of principles for understanding how policy is made, but one that resonates with this experience is that of a public official facing both uncertainty and time constraints. In an ideal world, options pursued by leaders would be informed by rigorous evidence telling us what works. In some ways this ideal can be made a reality, especially for perennial issues that have received generous research attention and a body of literature assuring us of the outcomes we can expect. In others, however, the ideal fades. When outcomes are ambiguous but a choice must be made quickly, what happens then? Leaders in any sector and at every level will continue to face crucial choices because of this outbreak that are defined by urgency and imperfect information. Faced with alternatives, even waiting for more information could be a key decision in and of itself. 

Why mention this on a labor-focused blog? I hope that we can think about our leaders facing uncertainty in a critical way. Even when the ideal of ample information and time fades, the decision-making process of those with influence shouldn’t be free from reflection and evaluation. Who should be at the table making choices when we face uncertainty and time constraints? For stakeholders like workers that will be heavily affected by certain choices, how can we make sure their perspectives are appropriately taken into account?

One answer provided by McKinsey and Company urges leaders to resist the temptation to isolate themselves and their decisions. Instead, they argue that more stakeholders should be involved than usual so that new perspectives and debates can emerge. Without sacrificing speed, leaders can make smarter decisions with this method. Moreover, after the initial response these key stakeholders can remain involved to assess outcomes of their decisions and whether the chosen course of action should be adjusted. This principle was described with business and/or organization-level implementation in mind, but governments can expand their stakeholder contributions as well. One example is the “Responsible RestartOhio” initiative within the Ohio Department of Health, which involved advisory groups composed of representatives from local organizations that were responsible for providing “best practice” recommendations as the state planned a return to limited economic activity. 

How transparent are your state, city, and key organizations in your community about their decision-making processes? In all seriousness, take a few minutes and try this out—is it easy for you to find this information? Are there well defined principles guiding community leaders’ choices (e.g., Pennsylvania’s website offering information about their “three phase matrix” for reopening activity)? Who is involved? 

Most importantly, are you satisfied with the answers to those questions? If not, consider visiting your local and/or state’s website to learn about these questions, calling your public officials and agencies, and connecting with people to learn about their perspectives. All of us will make a better decision than any of us would on our own.

Note: New research is quickly being done to better inform us about the implications of the COVID-19 outbreak itself, and our reactions to it. Many working papers from the economics discipline, for instance, can be found here.

Recent Notre Dame alum Emily Merola ('20) is a Research Associate at Notre Dame's Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO), as well as an active member of the Higgins Labor Program's Just Wage Initiative, to which she contributed important research as an undergraduate.

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