Associate Professor Jim Burroughs worked in the federal government and the non-profit sector for 15 years before joining the Schar School of Policy and Government as an expert in public management, administrative law, judicial process, and organizational theory. He is a founder, with Professor James Conant, of the lauded Master’s in Public Administration cohort partnership with local government in Northern Virginia. He served as a legislative assistant to two members of Congress and as legal counsel in the Office of the Federal Register at the National Archives. He currently serves as a Judge Advocate in the Virginia Defense Force which is part of the Virginia Department of Military Affairs.
Who are the people at the front lines of the COVID-19 battle?
Burroughs: One mistake that people make during this crisis is thinking that everyone is at home sheltering in place and working via the internet. There are a great many people who are out there working and dealing with the crisis. Let’s start with the fact that the grocery stores are open, the restaurants are delivering, the truckers are restocking our stores every day, and the utilities have to be maintained. An army of people are working every day to allow the rest of us to work from home.
Who are the public servants going into work every day, and what is their role in this crisis?
Burroughs: The reality is that public service workers are taking risks and risking getting sick to care for the rest of us. At times like this, mental health issues come to the forefront. Even though the courts are closed, the family services arm of the courts is working and is there to serve real needs with families in crisis. We have public servants who can’t always practice social distancing. This is particularly true in police, emergency medical technicians, and fire services. Their jobs and their core work mean that they not only work together but come in contact with the public. The shift work of our public safety officials continues 24/7 so they can respond when needed.
What are the risks associated with going to work right now?
Burroughs: This very act of going to work increases risk and potentially increases the possibility that our front line will become infected and not be there for the rest of us. The reverse is also true as providers don’t wish to create risks for their clients. It’s not just an individual issue but a management issue for our communities. This is a high stress time for our front line public servants. What strikes me is that they put aside their real feelings to go to work to serve others. It’s not a romantic ideal but an act of will to do this every day.
What about our local government leaders?
Burroughs: Beyond the front lines, our public organizations have to be managed. Senior leaders in local government have had to turn their operations around to perform as decentralized distributed organizations. While quickly reorganizing their operations, they are required to reassure the public that needed public services are still available. A perfect example of this is our feeding programs centered in the public schools: Breakfast and lunch are still available on a carry-out basis at many schools and even at pop-up locations.
How is local government maintaining their operations during this unique time?
Burroughs: All the buzz words that are usually applied to business are true of government. We see our government organizations as agile, flexible, and adaptable to the current crisis and still performing their mission. Creative scheduling is allowing enough personnel to be on-site while others telework. This is happening because routine work is being set aside for a time to focus on maintaining core services.