SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2), the virus that causes coronavirus disease (COVID-19), has exposed weaknesses—not in the United States’ federalist fabric, but in its degraded administrative systems and capacities. This article in the American Review of Public Administration argues that individual citizens—as tribalized and fractious as they seem—have been poorly served by public officials with career incentives to avoid risks, downplay long-term threats, and enact administrative burdens. Public administrators must advance a more equity-based assessment of vulnerabilities in American communities and more risk-based communication strategies. Citizens have never had access to more information—and thus more difficulty in discerning facts from fallacy. Public administrators are the planners, engineers, analysts, auditors, lawyers, and managers on the front lines of this and future existential crises. It is their job to sift through the information environment and—however boundedly—tackle problems. For the sake of the American democracy, public administrators need to regain the people’s trust. They could start by leveling with them about the challenges ahead.
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I work as an Assistant Professor at the O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Bloomington. There, I direct the MGMT Lab.