By: Rachael Andrews

Dr. Eric Zeemering, associate professor of public administration and policy and director of the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program is working with the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) to create and disseminate surveys that track local government responses to COVID-19. 

“As the pandemic crisis response evolved, it was clear that local governments were taking significant action,” Zeemering explains. “[And local governments] were not just responding as workplaces, they were responding as new public health outreach units.”

With stay-at-home orders and quarantine efforts, many municipalities made internal management changes that would modify services in order for governments to continue to provide those services. City governments are taking on new tasks, such as communicating with residents about social distancing, handwashing, and service delivery changes. 

Zeemering created the survey in order to communicate with mayors and city managers throughout the state of Georgia about their responses to COVID-19. 

“We hope that with information about the responses in the early days of the pandemic, we can use that information to offer useful insights to local governments in Georgia,” Zeemering says. “We also want to think about the evolution of pandemic response.” 

Zeemering provides summaries for four main areas of the survey: a general summary, internal service delivery changes, intergovernmental response and perceptions of other levels of government, and a summary on community collaboration and engagement.

The first survey explored the general reaction to the crisis, including if cities had pandemic response plans in place. Most did not. In fact, only 13 percent of cities indicated that they had a flu pandemic plan in their Emergency Operations Plan.

Second, Zeemering surveyed the internal response from the local governments, i.e., how cities handled non-essential and essential personnel work schedules and telecommuting needs. Forty-nine percent of cities said that employees were required to telework, and 50 percent reported a staggered structure of in-person work. Only 31 percent of cities were providing computers and other equipment to support telework and 20 percent were assisting employees with internet access. With unstable internet access in many parts of Georgia, if telework were to continue, governments may have to grapple through technology support for city employees. 

In the third survey, on the topic of intergovernmental coordination, Zeemering examined the local governments’ responses to Governor Brian Kemp’s preemptive state order. This executive decision dictated that local governments could not enforce any restrictions that were more or less strict than the state recommendations. 

“Preemptions are usually controversial,” Zeemering explains. “Local governments generally do not like them because they feel like they’re losing out on the ability to govern their local population.” 

However, the survey shows a different attitude in the midst of this pandemic. Forty-three percent of cities reported the preemption as extremely appropriate and another 27 percent said it was somewhat appropriate – only 9 percent reported that it was not appropriate. 

“This is surprising since most local governments want to protect their authority,” Zeemering reflects.

“One city reported concerns that their pandemic responses (closures, etc.) were being weighed against their neighboring cities, and they were concerned that may push business and residents to their neighbors,” Zeemering continues. “When the state stepped in, there was at least a level playing field across the state.” 

Moving forward, the survey will offer cities in Georgia practical insights as they continue to adapt to new ways of management and coordination under pandemic conditions.

From a research standpoint, Zeemering seeks to understand how differences in populations, management models, and partisanship lead to various policy responses by city governments.

“By understanding what is going on throughout the state, cities can reflect on their actions in the context of broader data and that might help them as they make policy choices for their communities,” he concludes.

For more information on the survey and its results, please visit here for the general summary, here for the internal management decisions, here for the intergovernmental coordination, and here for community collaboration and engagement.