Viewpoint

Rob Leone: Our leaders are groping along on COVID-19. There may not be a better way

There is no playbook for dealing with the pandemic
Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Williams during a daily briefing on June 12, 2020. Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

At some point soon, there will be a reckoning of all that has transpired with government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The temperature and mood of the public gets captured in polling on an ongoing basis and public support for political leaders appears to be running short as the pandemic drags on day by day. The vitriol that we see on social media and the overconfidence of some medical experts are making a mess of citizens trying to understand where we need to go and how to get there.

In the midst of this, some other academics — ones who study government, for example — are trying to figure out where the fault lines lay and how we might be governed better beyond the daily grind of watching as our political leaders are seemingly failing us.

The first hot take is this: our political leaders might be failing us, but they aren’t doing so intentionally. Everyone will have their opinions about whether we could have done more or might have done something different, but all the decisions made by governments, as well as all sorts of organizations that have to deal with COVID-19, have been taken with painstaking care and hours of deliberation.

In fact, the truth of the matter is that public opinion and academic opinion on what to do are not unanimous. When they are split, the level of consensus on decision making is miniscule. There will only be a small fraction of the decision area where all sides align. Everything else is up for debate.

In zone five, all stakeholders agree, making it an easy decision for government. In zone three and four, there is broad, but not unanimous, agreement among stakeholders, meaning government will decide which direction to take knowing it won’t satisfy everyone. A few ideas in zone one and two will be implemented, but most will not.

Take this Venn diagram of decision making. Here, we have five distinct groups of roughly equal size in the decision-making arena. Intersecting the circles shows the area of consensus. The number five denotes areas where all five groups agree, whereas the number four shows areas where four groups agree but one does not, and so on. This diagram serves to illustrate the point that when one group of experts, say the medical community, are advocating for things in which only they agree, it becomes a source of consternation for government because the four other groups aren’t on board.

But, the crazy thing about social media is we elevate those MDs and data scientists to a level where their opinions, because they are experts, are taken as sacrosanct. However, reality is different. There are other influential people talking to government who are experts in their own right: economists, workers, employers, and more. Whether one cares to listen to these ideas is not as relevant as the fact that governments obviously do. To do only what a narrow group of medical experts want would invalidate the pluralism of expertise that actually exists.

We will leave it up to the commentariat to determine whether a government should in fact be listening to one group over the other, but an objective viewpoint cannot help but understand that many different people and groups are feeding into the government decision-making process.

The important point to take away from this Venn diagram is to understand that governments are pulled in different directions. Governments know that they have to quash the COVID-19 virus, but they do not know the best way of getting there.

Lo and behold, there is actually a decision-making theory that explains this predicament. Robert Behn calls it the “groping along” model, which is also known as a form of management by experimentation. According to the theory, a leader who “gropes along” is not an incompetent decision-maker. Rather, the decision-maker knows what to do, but there isn’t a precise path on how to get to the goal. It suggests that, at any given moment, the manager has several decisions that could be taken to change the organization.

A decision-maker may be able to get closer to his or her desired end through a particular decision, but sometimes will be further from that end because of the negative experiences encountered along the way. When the decision-maker realizes this situation by analyzing the organization’s environment, other steps will be attempted to get back toward the desired goal. This is how “groping along” works. The decision-maker knows where he or she wants to go, but might get lost along the way.

Put it in a different way, if a leader encounters a problem, he or she attempts to fix the problem. And, while the intent of fixing the problem is sincere, the outcome of the decision may have misfired. Sometimes, those decisions helped move the organization closer to the goal and sometimes they move them further away from it.

Now, if we go back to that Venn diagram where many different experts are providing compelling and often diverging advice, it sets up the perfect circumstance for a leader to “grope along.” When one approach fails, a leader has to start fresh and make another decision. When a different approach leaves other influential groups feeling unheard, the government tries to take into account those concerns in order to demonstrate that it is, in fact, listening to the pluralistic expert opinion that is present.

Straying from the initial course to listen to affected groups and their advice may be seen as “not learning” from what worked and what didn’t work in previous waves, but it should be seen as experimenting with other approaches, which are invariably also backed by evidence, to determine whether they might work better.

When Ontario Premier Doug Ford apologized for getting it wrong, he laid bare what was plainly obvious. He got it wrong and he failed.

And, after 14 months of refusing to impose a serious restriction on international travel, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government finally got around to doing some of it. Again, some approaches were tried with success. Others were tried and failed. Opponents clamour at the seeming incompetence and governments claim to be acting in good faith and for the health and wellbeing of people. Here’s the thing about that juxtaposition: it’s possible that they’re both right.

While the calls for resignation for our political leaders are present, here’s another solemn truth: It doesn’t matter who is in charge, those new decision-makers would be experimenting as they go along. The reason is that there is no playbook for dealing with the pandemic. Sure, the Conservative Party of Canada might have shut down international travel sooner, but they probably wouldn’t have been as quick on the income supports earlier on. It is possible that the NDP in Ontario might have enacted sick pay (or never gotten rid of it to begin with), but they probably would have been reluctant to enact executive orders to break collective agreements that allowed workers to be moved into sectors hard hit by COVID-19. We might praise somebody else for doing something different we like, but loathe them for entirely other reasons.

That’s what managing by groping along brings and after 14 months of dealing with the pandemic that seems to never want to end, it is entirely expected that we are fed up.

This pandemic has brought about government decisions amid a sea of potential alternatives. Without solid direction on how to get to where we all want to be — a Canada that is free from COVID-19 — our leaders try to navigate uncharted territory without a compass. They are bound to make mistakes, and, unfortunately, mistakes in a pandemic can be a matter of life or death.

To borrow a phrase from Trudeau, “better is always possible.” Unfortunately, it’s also true that worse is also possible.

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