A couple of days ago, I’d drafted a blog post about a really interesting form of local government that I encountered in the Northwest Territories, but with events unfolding as fast as they are, my colleague suggested that maybe that post could wait and that I should write something about how local governments are at the front lines of the current pandemic, and how they can react in a firm, but reassuring way. Her idea is a good one, so here we go.
Local government often promotes itself as the order of government that is ‘closest to the people’. this usually means that they are the government that delivers direct service, whether that’s picking up the recycling, providing community safety, or hosting swimming lessons. In all of these cases, the term ‘closest’ is literally true and it is a big part of the way that contagions can be spread throughout our communities.
Local governments have a responsibility to stop the spread of disease and the resulting disorder at the best of times, and they are the ones residents often turn to for reassurance when things go sideways.. Following on the principles of good government, and acknowledging that these times are certainly volatile, when I look around the country at examples of how things are being handled well, this is what I see.
Wise local governments have activated their emergency operations centres and they are staffed up with experts who have practiced various crises, perhaps even approximating what we see now. By drawing on experience and leaning on the experts through this unprecedented global situation, local governments can learn what works and what doesn’t, adapt to changing challenges, and support each other as they are able.
Actions coming out of firm and focused governments often include placing prudent restrictions on where groups of people can gather, knowing that any individual, through no knowledge of their own, may be a vector for the virus to spread. We see this in the distressing but necessary closure of recreation centres, museums and libraries.
Continuing to provide necessary services and as much flexibility to staff and residents as possible allows for the effective deployment of emergency management procedures within our communities and shows us that local governments have our best interests at heart.
Local elected officials have a role to play too. Councils are meeting remotely, practicing what they are preaching to their citizens. They are allowing staff to work remotely where it makes sense. It is at times like these that we really appreciate people like first responders who have no ability to work remotely for obvious reasons.
As citizens we can help these front-line workers tremendously by following the advice of our elected officials to minimize our impact on the situation. Taking care of ourselves creates positive ripples throughout our community, and doing what we can to keep ourselves healthy reduces the risk to those working to keep our services running and provide care where it is needed most.
Chief elected officials, whether mayors or reeves are getting in front of cameras to reassure a distressed population. The really good ones post videos regularly and look serious, but not panicked. Nothing will spook a scared population faster than an obviously distressed mayor telling us to be calm. Actually, scratch that, I may be more spooked if there is nothing coming from the mayor at all.
When this is all over, there is certainly a tremendous amount of learning to do. For now, however, I know everyone is doing the best they can under the circumstances as they evolve. No elected official or municipal administrator took on the role thinking they would have to deal with a pandemic like this, but that role was thrust upon them and the vast majority of them are making the best out of the situation in an effort to keep us all safe, healthy, and informed.
Following the experts’ advice will give us all the best chance possible. Check out your municipality’s website, the provincial or territorial Medical Officer of Health, and Health Canada for timely and accurate information.
As this continues to evolve, I would be interested in the insights you have gained through the duration of the pandemic and would also be interested in what you need from the population you serve. Please reach out. I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org.