As we celebrate America’s independence today, it’s worth recalling independence from what. Our separation was from Britain, yes, but also from a stubborn status quo. The former we need not worry about any more, but the later constantly plagues us. President Joe Biden has signaled that this July Fourth is for turning a page on Covid, at least to its next phase. As we use the occasion to look toward the future broadly, one lesson is clear: We have to get better at bringing it about.
Our founding offers some lessons on separating from the status quo. Our founders were public entrepreneurs. With a revolution, as John Adams told it, they’d “launched into an ocean of uncertainty.” They were experimenters and tinkerers. They lived in a scientific age. They figured and often wrote that the way to discover what was possible was to make their way there. The Declaration of Independence itself was an “iteration”; the draft was a revision of earlier drafts, and the occasion at all was a result of unsuccessful attempts at petition and redress. Our 46th president has said, “I’ve always believed we can define America in one word: Possibilities.” Possibility describes our earliest days.
As we turn the page on the country’s last year, how would the founders regard it and us? Were we ready experimenters? How did we acquit ourselves when Covid launched us into our own sea of unknowns?
There is much those 18th century inventors would have appreciated. U.S. companies developed or co-developed three vaccines at breakneck speed. Government officials approved them in record time. Taxpayers helped fund them directly and indirectly. (Note there were vaccine attempts that failed in trial, too, and dropped, mostly without recrimination. This is good. This is science.) City services went digital overnight so that building permits could be secured and unemployment benefits applied for. States found new ways to communicate with residents. In many instances, governors “followed the data” and closed and opened as new information suggested they could. Yellow school buses were re-wired with Wi-Fi to keep students digitally connected. Autonomous ones were even repurposed to keep people fed. Citizen inventors made it easier to find PPE and get vaccines. Frontline medical personnel and those that supported them innovated every day just to survive and then innovated to help millions of others. In many ways, science and ingenuity and entrepreneurship were marshaled to combat a society-threatening moment. The founders would be proud of that.
Along the way though, there was also dithering and delusion. Tests were too few. Tracing at scale was too late. The digital divide languished. The summer of 2020 should have seen hundreds of efforts piloted to get more kids safely into school buildings in the fall. The fall of 2020 should have welcomed creative ideas for getting vaccines into arms in the winter. We should ask ourselves on that front why ideas like Vax-a-Million deployed only this May and what other opportunities we missed to promote vaccinations to skeptical populations earlier in the year. Moreover, all that we did to help, helped inequitably, delaying efforts to make this country’s promise — that everyone is created equal — a reality.
The history books will say that we invented our way out of this pandemic, but not quickly enough to save more lives and avoid more damage. How do we do better come July 5th?
First, we need to be more candid about the weaknesses of today’s status quo. This will be the time to make a realistic assessment of which of our public services are really working and which we are just pretending are. Thomas Paine began his Common Sense that helped birth the nation, “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.” There will be champions for custom in the coming months, but when it comes to public education, infrastructure, sustainability, public safety and workforce readiness, custom in so many instances isn’t cutting it. New York City’s rickety Board of Elections made itself known in recent days as but one tired example.
Second, we’ll need to try new and novel programs and services in prudent ways. There is more than two times as much relief money for cities and states in the American Rescue Plan than there was in the post-2008 stimulus. The $350 billion in funding is meant to be used to respond to both the public health emergency and the economic one it gave rise to, and ARPA’s eligible uses are wide-ranging. The federal guidelines this time use the word “flexibility” two dozen times. Mayors and governors have wide latitude in how to spend this chest of money. They should embrace novelty.
This is not an invitation to foolhardiness. Quite the contrary, there is a set of skills for possibility government — the pursuit of new programs and services that by virtue of their novelty may only possibly work — that minimize waste while maximizing learning. Public leaders should in this moment of all moments, use them: Invite in more ideas. Try new ideas out in partial ways before building them fully. Scale them by harnessing government as a platform, i.e. building a foundation for others to innovate on top of or connect across. GPS was one government project that unleashed unending private innovation, much of it for public good. We are ready for our generation’s version.
Not all of these attempts to bring about the future will succeed. Most new efforts don’t. The idea is that a few giant transformative successes more than make up for smaller failures. On transforming public safety in his city of Saint Paul, Minn., Mayor Melvin Carter has said, “Most likely, we won’t get everything right our first time around.” He’s right, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, as long as leaders are willing to acknowledge failures, learn from them and move on.
Finally, we should contour our public investments to the kinds of programs that pave the way to a better future. This means federal agencies should move quickly to deploy the $1 billion for tech modernization in the American Rescue Plan. It means cities and states should grow their digital service teams, leveraging their relief funds (yes, tech and data investments are allowed) and other funding streams. Making America future-ready means supporting efforts like Code for America, Coding it Forward, The Tech Talent Project, and the U.S. Digital Response for the services they help deliver and because they attract a new generation into public service.
For too many years now, “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste” has been the operating maxim of governments. Left unsaid, but not unmeant is that change is impossible afterward. Today we hear with fingers crossed a different utterance, “Our agility will stay when Covid is gone.”
I hope so. It’s not inevitable, but it would be utterly American.
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