Dysfunction Exposed in COVID Demands Overhaul of Virginia’s Government

by James C. Sherlock

Great Seal of Virginia

We all like to discuss the politics of things. That in many instances is appropriate. But political leadership is neither the problem nor the solution I will discuss here today.  

We will spend every day between now and November’s election debating how the politicians responded to COVID. And we should. But our state government has failed both us and our elected leaders.  

I submit that the failures of the bureaucracies would have crippled elected officials from either party. We need desperately to fix the laws, regulations and bureaucratic structures that harbor such failures as permanently as we are able.

I will suggest a path.

What needs to be done?

I wrote in late March in praise of Virginia’s pandemic influenza emergency plan and published key details the next day. Two days later I discovered the coverup. The plan had been removed from public view on state websites, never to be heard of again.

In what universe does a bureaucracy take action to hide from the public its pandemic emergency action plan because it is embarrassed by its utter lack of preparation and compliance? Answer: In the universe that is Virginia.

Start there, with the plan.  

I found it excellent, but I may be one of the few Virginians, including government employees, who has actually read it. There was no evidence at the onset of COVID that the state agencies to which the plan assigned specific tasks ever prepared for them much less carried them out in the emergency.  

We must examine what the plan required and why it was not implemented. Examine the role and functioning of the Department of Emergency Management. Did it have enough authority to force preparation and compliance by the rest of the bureaucracy? Did it try?

Assess the role of Virginia’s understaffed healthcare facility inspection regime in the deadly performance of some nursing homes. Take a deep look at the nation’s worst management and administration of COVID tests and vaccines. Examine the effects of COPN on hospital availability for the emergency. Review school preparations, school safety and in-person instruction or lack of it. 

Look at Virginia’s thick blanket of appointed boards. Did they help or hinder? Did you know that the Board of Health:

“Makes emergency orders and regulations for the purpose of suppressing nuisances dangerous to the public health and communicable, contagious and infectious diseases and other dangers to the public life and health (§32.1-13)”?  

Did the Board members know it? Did the Health Commissioner? Are we retrospectively glad the Board didn’t do what the law requires? Does the structure of the Board of Health reflect their legal responsibilities? 

Similar questions surround the Board of Education and perhaps others in the forest of such boards that are supposed to provide oversight of the executive departments.

We must assess the relationship between the Governor’s office and the Supreme Court in an emergency. In COVID that relationship was certainly controversial. Does it need to be better defined in law? Did the staffs of the courts and the law department (Attorney General) prove efficient and effective in the time of COVID? 

The sampling above is not even close to complete.

Many of the failures were not exclusively or even primarily political, but rather represented failure of what were supposed to be the structural supports to all of us as well as to the decision-makers.  

Do we want the next Governor, Democrat or Republican, to take office with an executive department not even in the process of review with an eye towards reform? Are we to leave it with the same embedded dysfunctionality we have just witnessed?

A Proposal

COVID has exposed flaws so deeply ingrained in the government of Virginia that I propose that next year’s General Assembly establish a Commission on the Performance of the Structures of Virginia Government in COVID Response. I chose the name carefully.

To be of any use — to get anything done — and most importantly to gain the trust of the people of Virginia, it must be bipartisan and charged to focus exclusively on the structures of government and their performance in the emergency, not the performance of political leadership.

That Commission should examine every aspect of the government response — executive, legislative, courts and law department (AG’s office) — for laws, regulations and the structural and bureaucratic components of government that either failed to respond at all or did so ineffectively. 

And then recommend changes to laws, regulations and structures. Identify individual accountability in the bureaucracies as necessary to prevent it from happening again. 

I worked under contract to the federal government in the Clinton/Gore reinventing government initiative. From that experience I will guarantee that new rules and structures that leave in place the same failed leaders of the career bureaucracies do not a solution make. As a start, find and name the government official who ordered the hiding of the pandemic emergency plan.

I propose that this Commission emulate the structure of the Commission on Constitutional Revision, authorized by joint resolution at the General Assembly’s 1968 Session and appointed by Governor Mills E. Godwin, Jr. That Commission, chaired by former Governor Albertis S. Harrison, Jr., reported to the Governor and the General Assembly in January 1969. Out of that effort we got an entirely new constitution.

No Virginian, including our elected representatives, wants either to repeat the failures of government emergency response or the day-to-day failures that underwrote that failed emergency response in COVID or to allow them to persist unexamined and uncorrected.  

So, appoint a blue-ribbon Commission, assure that it is bipartisan, skilled, is supported by experienced and skilled staff, is charged and empowered adequate to the task, and then fix the problems it unearths.

Consider hiring one of Virginia’s Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs) such as Mitre to help staff the Commission. They know what they are doing and have no political dog in the fight.

But there is really no alternative to such a Commission. The General Assembly can and must appoint one.