Highlighting feds working behind the scenes during the pandemic

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It’s far from over, it’s not even the end of the beginning. But nearly every public and private element in the United States is somehow involved in pushing back the pandemic. A few of the career federal civil servants you may see on TV. But thousands more are working behind the scenes. For some perspective, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke to the President of the Volcker Alliance, Thomas Ross.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Ross, Good to have you back.

Thomas Ross: Thank you very much, Tom. I’m glad to be here.

Tom Temin: And as a sort of good government group, the Volcker Alliance has released a statement on this very topic. Summarize for us what the alliance’s view is on the federal workforce at this point.

Thomas Ross: Well I think we have to begin by thanking the civil servants of America, the public servants who are every day serving our fellow citizens. You can think about our public health service and the incredible job they’re doing. You think about the people at CDC, in the trenches that are trying to figure out what this virus means, how to deal with the spread of it, how to deal with thinking about treatment and doing the resource necessary to understand what’s necessary for a vaccine. I mean, there’s so much going on. And then at the state and local level, where you have first responders every day, putting their own lives at risk, their own families’ at risk to serve us. You know, I noticed there were over 1,000 members of the New York Police Department that have been infected with coronavirus as they go out and try to serve the public. So, you know, public service workers – we owe them a great deal of thanks. And I first think we have to be – pause and be very appreciative of their service to all of us. I think the other factor here, though, is we have to step back at the same time and be careful, to watch what’s going on, to learn lessons, to prepare for the future. And I think one of the things we’re seeing already is how critical that having the right people in the right place is, and having them there before a crisis ever happens. You can’t wait ’til a crisis comes to get the right people in place. You have to have them ahead of time. And they have to have time to prepare and to do scenario planning and to think about the execution. Because when the crisis happens.

Tom Temin: It also seems like there’s a new federalism kind of re-emerging with the states and the governors taking a lot of leadership on this. And yet a lot of their resources eventually come from the federal government. And so you’ve got more of a localized reaction and game plan, even though you have federal backing. That seems to be something that’s a little stronger than we’ve seen in recent years.

Thomas Ross: Yeah, well, I think there are a lot of people who would have different reasons for explaining why that happened. But, you know, I do think that you’ve seen mayors, you’ve seen governors really step up and lead in this crisis. They’ve been the ones that I think are on the front line and see most closely what’s happening. And so that’s the reason I think they’ve taken steps maybe sooner than has happened in the federal level, and certainly they, you know, the steps that have been taken have varied depending on the level of the crisis. But, I think people’s view of government, it’s gonna be interesting to see how we come out of this, because on the one hand, I think they are seeing government really step up at the local level and make some tough decisions and, you know, have to make decisions that are hurting the economy and hurting people. But at the same time, we’re trying to save lives, and it’s a tough dilemma. But I think people feel good that a lot of local officials and state officials are doing the right thing. You know, the federal level, I think was, a little slow to respond. And you know, we’re still seeing some problems getting the equipment needed out there. And hopefully, that’s changing and going to, you know, allow us to catch up before things get even worse.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Tom Ross. He’s president of the Volcker Alliance and comment, if you will, on the difficulties of keeping regular programs going. I mean, everyone thinks of the census, for example, which had a really big program going before all of this, and it has to finish that work. And yet all its people are scattered, and there are so many external forces now scrambling the plan they had in place for counting people.

Thomas Ross: Right, I mean, I think again, this is, it’s one example and I think you’re seeing it at other agencies, other federal agencies as well as at state and local government, where those people that have done really good advanced planning for various different scenarios are better positioned to deal with this. But I don’t think anybody could forsee something of this scale happening quite as quickly as it did, and, you know, but the census, you know, they were prepared to do a lot of it online. I completed the census. I hope everybody will think it’s critically important to our country that we get the best count we can. So I hope people will do that. But you know, it is possible to do it online. I think they thought about that. I think there were – their real problem now is what are they going to do about the sort of follow-up in the door knockers, and that sort of thing. And I’m sure that there are people working hard to figure that out. And those are the people that we ought to be thanking because they’re the day-to-day civil servants, that are still having to buckle down and do their job, some of them in the office and some of them, you know, doing it remotely. And fortunately, we have the technology nowadays that allows a lot of work to be done remotely.

Tom Temin: And of course, everyone is familiar with the sight of Dr. Anthony Fauci, a longtime career civil servant there on television with the president, with appointed officials, with elected officials. What’s the best role now for appointees as their agencies labor through the details of program execution?

Thomas Ross: Well, you know, I think if you’re a political appointee and you’re sitting in, again, in a federal agency or even state and local agencies, the first thing I think one needs to do is before a crisis ever happens is to build trust with civil servants. Because many times they’re the people, as Dr. Fauci certainly is, who have tremendous experience, who’ve been through lots of different situations in the past and bring a lot of experience to the table. But they also bring a very high level of expertise. You know, we have some incredible people working in government, and they do have amazing expertise. And so I think you build that trust. And then when something like this happens, you listen. You listen to them, you listen to the facts, and you take advantage of their experience and step back and let them do their job.

Tom Temin: Now you have been a state official, you’ve been a congressional official at the federal level, among other jobs and in higher education. And rarely a disaster is of such an unprecedented nature, not like a flood or a hurricane, which you – are unfortunate, but we kind of know how to deal with. But I think in this case it’s more akin to 9/11 in that it is something that was difficult to imagine. And so what might be the permanent effects on governance and approaches that you think could fall out from this?

Thomas Ross: Well, look, I think this is historic, no question about it. There were people – Bill Gates, who, I watched a Ted Talk with Bill Gates, a 2015 Ted Talk in which he said this was the biggest threat to the world. And here we are five years later and it’s happening. So there were people thinking about this ahead of time, and whether we were as prepared as we should be is a question we should think carefully about in the future and really, you know, debrief once we get past this crisis and understand what we didn’t do as well as we should, and how can we do better. You know, I think there will be permanent impact here. I think the world will change in some ways, that we – it’s hard to predict, but certainly we’re all learning to adjust, and people are working, you know, remotely. They’re working all over the world. They’re using technology in ways that they haven’t before. And I think that will certainly change the nature of work as we move forward. I hope what will come out of this is, a couple of things that relate to government. One of them is that we understand the importance of governance, the government in our lives, that we remember that, not just in a crisis but day to day. That we also come out of this understanding the importance of having the right people, the right talent in government. And frankly, as we’ve talked about before, you know, there is a workforce crisis going on in government, and we’re gonna need to give that some serious attention when this crisis is behind us, because that’s the way we’ll start preparing for the next one is to really have the right people in the right place. You know, I think there will be some, you know, analysis done afterwards, of specific things we did well and specific things we didn’t do well in this crisis, and you know, how we can better coordinate among levels of government. How can we do better planning and scenario planning so that these kinds of things are, you know, that we’re ready for them and that takes people who know how to prepare, people who know how to execute a plan and people who can, you know, deal with the crisis, who can manage a crisis with calmness and with reliance on facts and moving the country in the right direction. And I think you know, this will be a lesson for a lot of us in how we should conduct ourselves going forward. And I think government will learn as much as all the rest of us do.

Tom Temin: Tom Ross is president of the Volcker Alliance. Thanks. So much for joining me.

Thomas Ross: Tom, it’s been a pleasure, as always. Thanks for what you all do.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview along with a link to the Alliance statement at www.federalnewsnetwork.com/FederalDrive. Here The Federal Drive on your schedule. Subscribe At Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.

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