At right,Donald F. Kettl, incoming public policy dean, University of Maryland
Donald Kettl, incoming public policy dean at the University of Maryland and a top expert of public administration, says that the U.S. government faces a keen test of calibrating its response and the people’s reaction to swine flu and a possible pandemic. "This is an issue that has swept around the world in lightning speed,” Kettl says. “At a food cart yesterday, two people were talking about the coming plague—and the need to read the Bible. This isn’t Armageddon—the government faces a keen test of calibrating its response and the people’s reaction. How can we best signal the level of seriousness of the issue to ensure the best preparedness and caution without creating panic? We’ve long known that a genuine pandemic could strike fast and hit hard. Especially in the aftermath of the 2001 anthrax attacks and SARS, the government has spent a lot of time and energy quietly preparing for the possibility of biothreats, either from nature or from terrorists. From all indications, the preparations were thorough and the nation is ready. But this could prove the first real acid test.”
Kettl continues, “"The challenge for the Obama administration is that the Senate has been slow in confirming appointments and that its own internal checks have delayed some nominations. The critical agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is now headed by an acting director, and the president has not yet decided on his nominee. The Senate has not yet confirmed Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of Health and Human Services, the crucial cabinet department that oversees CDC, the FDA, and the nation’s health system. Partisan finger-pointing on both sides has already started. A presidential transition is a terrible time to face a major crisis, for many key agencies don’t have experienced hands at the helm. It will be even worse if Congress, already virtually frozen in inaction, sees this as an opportunity for scoring quick points. Most of the key decisions so far have come out of the Department of Homeland Security, which has the authority for mobilizing resources. There is a lot of behind-the-scenes work with other governments and with the vast health care complex in this country. Right now, the key is figuring out what’s happening—what kind of disease is this, how big is the threat, and how fast could it spread.”
Kettl adds further, “This could move so fast that the benchmarks will be clear only after the problems emerge. We’re betting big time on the capacity we’ve created over the last decade. There isn’t a Republican or Democratic way to protect individuals from swine flu. The Obama administration has to very carefully calibrate awareness without creating panic. It has to build partnerships across all levels of government, across the health sector, and with other nations. In fact, this isn’t too dissimilar from the steps it has to take in dealing with the financial crisis: a heavy bet on experts, an executive-centered enterprise, the need to get leverage through a complex system that no one really controls, and a Congress struggling to get into the game. In the top half of the first inning, the Obama administration keeps facing the same pitch. Figuring out how to deal with it is not only the key to its success in this problem. It’s likely to prove the key to 21st century government."