Disjointed Response – Not Surprised

As the COVID-19 saga continues, one quiet but notable narrative has started to emerge. That narrative being why isn’t the federal government coordinating the entire response to the pandemic?

Of course, there is some national coordination happening, but it seems limited to money and policy related to money – fiscal policy and such. When it comes, though to actual coordination by a federal body on issues like quarantine, testing and even treatment, the rollout has been, at best, a patchwork. States and counties have taken the lead to direct rules and regulations in response.  

To me, this type of “let the states figure this out” approach by the federal government is not a surprise. And to boot, it seems to adhere to a long-standing policy by the federal government to approach any desired policy as a “strongly advised” but no mandate.

Let me give you an example. There was money appropriated to states, in the form of grants to build a “longitudinal data” system in the United States. It was called the Workforce Data Quality Initiative, or WDQI.

Server Icon
Servers were the key tool for integration of information for the WDQI
PC: “Server Icon” by David Yim is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Money was given to every state to have their departments of labor create data linkages that would take information on people’s education history and create a non-identifiable aggregate profile. This was to identify skill gaps and provide a better focus on which workforce training programs to fund.

A focus like this would help more people get the skills they needed to get, keep and be promoted in jobs that would raise the quality of living in people overall.   

Sounds dynamite on paper. And you would probably think that everyone would be on board at the state and county levels. After all, more targeted funding to programs would help them deploy those federal dollars more effectively, helping more people.

But that is not how all counties and states looked at the opportunity.

One thing that came up pretty quickly was a concern about the sharing of personal identifiable information (“PII”). No problem, the WDQI grant overseers said – just de-identify people and use the information in aggregate.

Then there was the question of using social security numbers – a quick and easy way to identify individual as just about every American has one. Again, the PII issue came up and Attorney Generals of each state raised the alarm. This alarm became a “hell no” mantra when it came to these programs asking for wage information from certain states departments’ of labor.

Albeit, some states were more successful in linking up the information from schools, wage records and the workforce training programs. A key example was Texas, where they formulated agreements and even created a state-funded office to manage the data program.

But let’s just say that the execution of this great plan was patchy at best, with some programs ending up doing nothing because of these concerns.

One question that did come up was “why doesn’t the federal government just get the info and create the databases themselves?”.

Ah, sound familiar?

The answer back from these federal program officers showed to me where the line was between federal desires and states rights. In short, there was no desire whatsoever to impose a federally-directed program. It was recognized that while having this type of information would be helpful for federal workforce planning, there was also a recognition that states would balk at such a request.

So, when it comes to the COVID-19 response, the same arguments are surely coming out again. And it seems the White House/federal government is choosing not to even get into that argument. I suspect until this is all over with the “strong suggestions” you hear from federal officials is the highest level of federal input they will make.

The only way to change this is if Congress passed a law that would yank state’s control over the response and put it in federal hands. That probability is between nil to none at this point.

And that is why we, as America, has responded to the outbreak of this virus in this way.