By Haney Hong
Legendary House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neil famously observed that “all politics is local.” Unfortunately, we’re forgetting that right now as we fixate on the words coming out of President Trump’s mouth.
The winning formula to combat COVID-19 will be coordination and engagement at the local level — not the federal or even state level. Sure, the federal government is tasked with developing an overarching battle plan to fight this invisible but deadly enemy. And yes, the states may issue formal declarations, such as ordering residents to stay at home and coordinating resources intrastate. But make no mistake, it’s local officials who will be responsible for winning this war. The localities — our counties, cities, and town governments — are the tip of the spear and we need to base our actions on their directives.
Besides being a husband, father, and leader of a nonprofit charged with ensuring that our tax dollars are well-spent, I’m also a Navy reservist. My military background exposed me to, the jargon-y expression “centralized planning, decentralized execution” when we do war planning.
What that means is we try our best to get all stakeholders, who may have different interests and challenges, to agree on goals and coordinate resources. Not only that, but we also have to agree on how we’ll achieve those goals in general. That’s centralized planning.
Yet, when it comes to execution, the military decentralizes by empowering battlefield commanders. We presume that the warriors in the field have a better sense of what is happening. Sometimes higher-ups in the headquarters just need to stay out of the way and focus mainly on coordination across battlefields. In this war we’re now waging against COVID-19, the warriors we must follow are the local executives, from mayors to county health officials, who have the information about what is happening on the ground.
Now, I don’t take anything away from the importance of national leadership during a crisis. In the military, local battlefield commanders need the Pentagon however much they may loathe what they see as the five-sided seat of bureaucracy. It’s helpful for a national leader like President Trump to call this pandemic “a war.” That way, all Americans can mobilize to action around a shared goal. It’s also important that he and the White House task force are pulling governors and large corporate executives together for some centralized planning and resource management.
But let’s remember that we each are the combatants in this global war against COVID-19, and in order to achieve victory over the enemy, we’re going to have to fight many different local battles. We all have a role to play in the strategy to #flatten-the-LOCAL-curve.
Every citizen should be a good soldier and recognize the orders that matter most are what local leaders decide to do — not what the White House says. When the advice national leaders give individual communities is generic and untailored to the unique conditions of each locality, opportunities are lost.
Local leaders see conditions on the ground, and so they can give us the best direction as citizens. The battle for San Diego is and will be different than the battle for San Francisco. We need to entrust our respective local leaders to coordinate with state leaders, who can subsequently coordinate with national leaders.
So in times like these, we each have a responsibility to follow orders from local leaders. This is what is minimally required of all of us, and we don’t help the fight by jumping the chain of command and taking orders directly from higher headquarters (aka the President). We need to let local leaders interpret guidance and direction from higher authorities.
If local authorities say “shelter-in-place,” don’t second guess. Give them the benefit of the doubt and take steps to function from home. They know more than we do, like the number of respirators on hand or the capacity of the local hospitals.
But if the local authorities say you can go out and about to get the local economy rolling, that’s when you can do it. You don’t take your orders from President Trump on that, because he doesn’t know the local situation.
So to all the critics of what President Trump is saying, let’s just chill. The local leaders know best anyhow.
We’re in a war, all right. And we will win. But how quickly? And at what cost? The answer depends on whose orders you decide to follow — and we’ll be better off if we take our direction from our local leaders, not anyone in Washington, D.C.
Haney Hong is president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, a 74-year-old nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, dedicated to promoting accountable, cost-effective and efficient government and opposing unnecessary new taxes and fees.
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