OSCEOLA, Wis. — Benjamin Krumenauer has long had a passion for local government.
Krumenauer said he grew up in municipal life, starting as an intern and working up to his current role as the village administrator for Osceola. The public sector is essential to people’s day-to-day lives, he said — from plowing roads to building parks.
“Local government is the last place of true discussion, where politics are generally left at the door,” Krumenauer said.
During the pandemic, though, Krumenauer said he’s seen increasing challenges for local government. More politics are getting in the way of communication, he said, and local leaders are being asked to do more with less money.
These kinds of hurdles have shown up for many of Wisconsin’s local managers during the pandemic, according to a recent study.
Researchers from the Whitburn Center for Governance and Policy Research at UW-Oshkosh surveyed dozens of professional managers across the state — focusing on city managers and village administrators who are hired, not elected.
“They felt prepared to handle a crisis,” said study co-author Michael Ford, director of the Whitburn Center. “They felt unprepared to handle the specifics of COVID-19.”
Now that we may be nearing the finish line with COVID-19, Ford said it felt like a good time to look back at the successes and challenges of our local response. After all, COVID-19 probably won’t be the last pandemic we see — so now is the time to start preparing for the future.
“We wanted to make sure that we didn't put our local governments in a position like they were in two years ago, where they are making things up on the fly,” Ford said.
Getting on the same page
Aaron Jenson was just getting started in his role as Waupaca’s city administrator when COVID-19 hit.
“Really my first year was the pandemic,” he said. “Which was awesome.”
But even for those who had been in their jobs longer, COVID-19 was a brand-new problem, Jenson pointed out. Local governments didn’t have a playbook for how to deal with a global health crisis, and everyone was turning to the person above them for guidance.
“There was a little sense of everyone looking at each other, like, ‘What do we do?’” Jenson said. “And that isn’t just locally. That was at the state level and at the national level.”
One of the report’s main takeaways was the need to clear up who has authority over these kinds of public health decisions, said Samantha Larson, study co-author and deputy director of the Whitburn Center.
When there isn’t a clear chain of command, you can end up with conflicting advice from different levels of government, Larson said. And to get through something, like a pandemic, “you need people really on the same page, working together,” she said.
In the case of COVID-19, Ford said local managers reported a lot of dissatisfaction with Wisconsin’s state response — especially the lack of clear direction on who was in charge of what. Many pointed to the battle over Wisconsin’s statewide stay-at-home order as a turning point when it became harder to navigate the pandemic response, he said.
Still, Jenson and Krumenauer said they were proud of how their local governments worked together on the COVID-19 response, from staff to elected officials to community members.
“Everybody thinks differently,” Krumenauer said. “So, we had some grumpies. But we had some big supporters, too.”
Working in smaller communities — Osceola has around 3,000 residents, while Waupaca has around 6,000 — both said they had a lot of responsibility fall on their plates during the pandemic, from taking the lead on communication to figuring out remote work options.
Across the state, around 71% of managers said their municipality moved meetings online and limited access to public buildings, according to the UWO study. Around 40% took on some kind of public information campaign as well.
But some of the actions that sparked big political debates were actually pretty rare, Ford pointed out. Only around 24% of municipalities enacted a local mask mandate, the survey found, and just 5% placed occupancy limits on businesses.
When COVID-19 first showed up, it brought people together under a common goal, managers said.
“Any time you have a disaster on that level, there is a sense of unity that happens,” Jenson said.
In a lot of cases, though, that unity didn’t last forever.
As the pandemic dragged on, Ford said many managers saw politics start to play a bigger role. And that took a toll on public workers’ morale, Larson said.
“It's just a very lonely place to be,” Ford said. “You're trying to navigate a crisis when every single thing you do is questioned.”
Krumenauer said that while guiding the village’s pandemic response, “I had to leave my personal emotions at the door.” And Jenson agreed that his team had to focus on what the experts advised and what would work best for the community — regardless of their own political opinions.
Still, Krumenauer said he’s worried the heated political environment — including criticism on social media — is a challenge that could scare young people away from the public sector.
“It's hard to shut our brains down at five o'clock and go home, when you can look on your phone and you read all the things that people hate about what you just did,” Krumenauer said.
Ford said that a role, like a city manager or a village administrator, is usually supposed to be shielded from politics, compared to elected positions, like mayor or council members. During COVID-19, though, many of these professional managers ended up “taking a lot of the heat” for making difficult decisions.
On top of that, many local managers were dealing with misinformation, researchers said — trying to communicate with the public while having to constantly react to wrong information.
“It's just taking an incredibly difficult job to begin with, where there's an incredibly high rate of burnout, and making it that much harder,” Ford said. “It's very rare to have a situation where the entire profession is all experiencing this burnout at the same time.”
Beyond ‘back to normal’
As COVID-19 cases remain at a pretty low level, Krumenauer said his village — like many across Wisconsin — is starting to wind down some of its pandemic policies.
But we shouldn’t try to just make things like they were before, Larson said.
“Going back to normal, if that's the goal, that's where you'll see people breaking down the next time, the same as they did this time,” Larson said. “So, I think, that the goal is, how do we build resilience to this, and innovate, and learn?”
Preparing for the next pandemic will take more than “good faith in people doing the right thing,” Larson said.
The researchers recommended that municipalities create a pandemic response plan and commit to updating it on a regular basis. Right now, it might seem hard to imagine that we’ll forget about COVID-19 — but people’s priorities can change as a current crisis fades into history.
“Everybody forgot the Spanish flu,” Krumenauer said. “But that was a problem. And everybody, at some point, is going to forget this one.”
Clearing up the decision-making process should be a part of that planning, Larson said, to make sure we don’t end up with the same kind of confusion over who has authority.
The researchers also stressed the importance of finding ways to support people in the public workforce who are dealing with burnout after COVID-19.
“Some people actually said, ‘I'm fearing exodus from the profession because of this,’” Larson said. “And so, if people are on an island and feeling alone, we need to make sure we figure out how to give them a lifeline.”
Generally, Krumenauer said the pandemic has really highlighted the importance of trust and communication within local government. Having strong relationships in place can help make sure everyone is working well together in a crisis, he said.
Jenson also emphasized the importance of constant communication to keep everyone on the same page.
“It is all very doable, as long as you’re rowing the boat in the same direction,” Jenson said.
Overall, Krumenauer said his community was “luckier than most” coming out of this pandemic, and there have been a lot of wins to celebrate. But there are still some challenges to think about heading into the future.
“We learn from mistakes to get stronger as individuals. That's what we teach our children,” Krumenauer said. “Well, we need to continue teaching the government to do the same.”