Could Better Government Have Lowered Pandemic Deaths by 100,000 or Reduced Costs by a Trillion Dollars?

It never is easy for government to respond to crises, especially one as big and far-reaching as the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, a better policymaking process might have saved tens of thousands of lives and massive amounts of money.

While the media focus on big political fights, the key to policy success—especially in a crisis—is having a process where expertise, and not politics, drives the first draft of options for solution.

Who, then, should our elected officials place in charge of that first draft? To start, they should be people highly trained in how to address the problem at hand. In the Executive Branch, ideally public health issues surrounding a pandemic would be managed by career staff at the Centers for Disease Control or the Food & Drug Administration, while staff at the Treasury Department or the Office of Management and Budget would respond to the economic fallout.

In Congress, legislative options would be developed first by its nonpartisan staffs in offices such as the Government Accountability Office, the Joint Committee on Taxation, or the Congressional Budget Office, though some committees unfortunately lack separate nonpartisan staff and would need to turn more immediately to Democratic and Republican committee staff. Besides subject matter expertise, these staffers should apply their knowledge in an objective, analytical fashion, saving the political compromises for lawmakers themselves.

One complication is the increased blurring of boundaries between politics and expertise. Many political appointees in agencies and on congressional staffs are expected to support a political party or boss rather than to provide objective analysis. Meanwhile, almost all civil servants are trained to perform disinterested analysis but must “stay in their lane.” Thus, they usually are not allowed, asked or even organized to design options, much less those that cut across policy realms, such as health and the economy. Those limitations often force the best of them to leave. in absence of broader organizational reform, therefore, how to organize for the next emergency will continue to be constrained more than necessary. Regardless, no organizational structure is perfect; the most crucial first step is to find the right people to work on that first draft.

Don’t get me wrong. Experts should not usurp the role of elected officials, who must take those options and balance them against legitimate—and often contradictory—concerns. But starting out on the right foot significantly increases the probability of success.

Elected officials, in turn, should maintain their proper roles of defining broad objectives, assessing what is politically feasible, and making final decisions. But they should not usurp roles for which they are inadequately trained any more than they should run the labs attempting to come up with new vaccines.

Pity the poor civil servants, layered deep in government behind thousands of political appointees in the Executive Branch and Congress, who know how to make life marginally better for the nation. They have vital information, but it just can’t navigate the political and bureaucratic maze.

The system’s failure helps explain while, more than a year after the onset of the pandemic, we still struggle with inadequate availability of tests, limited vaccine production, a struggling vaccine distribution process, uncoordinated research on drug treatments, and an ongoing  failure to provide everyone with the best possible masks. Maybe better decisions would have reduced deaths only by 4 percent in each of these areas, but added together, that’s 100,000 lives as of late February.

The same process failure plays out in the design of our big pandemic relief bills. As usual, Congress is battling over a top-line number: Should the current measure total $1.9 trillion as proposed by President Biden or some smaller amount. Yet, too little attention is given to how to spend that money most efficiently.

Many ideas for better targeting relief to those who most need it and to spur a faster economic recovery are out there, such as those that highlight direct purchases over simple transfer payments, especially transfers likely to be saved, or making use of  pandemic relief with higher multiplier effects. But Congress largely is ignoring them.

In sum, had policymakers focused on effective first drafts of options to address the current pandemic, they might easily have saved 100,000 lives and $1 trillion. Process reforms may sound boring, but without them we will face another round of policy failures when the next crisis comes along.

This column originally appeared on TaxVox on March 1, 2021.