By Justin Bailey
In mid-March, events across the country were cancelled, schools and restaurants were shuttered, and stay-at-home orders were issued. In College Station, Bush School Public Service & Administration Professor Ann Bowman was interested in a deeper question: Could the responses of each of the states be quantified? And if so, what information could be gleaned from steps each governor took?
“The coronavirus has been a disruptive event for state and local governments throughout the country, and I wanted to explore how they reacted to this global pandemic,” Bowman said. “I was especially interested in the role played by governors, particularly their use of executive orders.”
Collecting the Data
Bowman enlisted the help of her graduate assistant, James McKenzie, to gather and help analyze the data.
“Dr. Bowman asked me to record the number of COVID-19 cases using data from the New York Times in the months of March and April,” McKenzie said. “I was also tasked with collecting data on the states, specifically how governors handled policies related to the pandemic: when they issued a state of emergency, if they issued a stay-at-home order, if they closed bars and restaurants, if they closed down schools, and if they issued a traveler quarantine, as well as other policy decisions.”
McKenzie said the most difficult part was the wide range of data that needed to be collected and the need to quantify some of the nuances of different governors’ executive orders. “Stay-at-home” orders, for instance, meant different things in different states.
McKenzie and Bowman worked closely together throughout the project, initially in identifying the various metrics they would collect, then in discussing the data as it came in. McKenzie, who plans on a career in state or local government, saw the discussions with Bowman, widely considered a leader in her field, as particularly beneficial.
“The opportunity to work with Dr. Bowman on this project absolutely helped me hone my data analysis, writing, and research skills within her field of expertise,” McKenzie said. “I specifically benefited from the working discussions Dr. Bowman and I shared about how federalism impacts power dynamics between state and local governments; this was a major focus of our paper topic.”
After collecting data for two months, McKenzie’s data analysis and visualization skills were put to the test.
“James has a strong work ethic and excellent research skills,” Bowman said. “He has learned a lot about state and local governments, and he is adept at tracking down hard-to-find data. James is quite skilled at data analysis and presentation; he produced scatterplots and maps for this project.”
Putting It All Together
The research and analysis complete, the pair set about writing a paper detailing what they’d found.
“Media reports indicated that the coronavirus was not affecting all states with the same severity, so I expected to find variation in governors’ reactions,” Bowman said. “The data collected and analyzed for this research supported this expectation.”
“The results of our analysis showed that in the months of March and April 2020, governors played a prominent role initiating a rapidly changing policy environment, predominantly through executive orders,” McKenzie added. “There were a number of complex factors governors may have considered when determining the timing and level of restrictiveness for their executive orders; for example, the number of confirmed cases in the state, political party identification and potential re-election decisions, the level of cooperation with local governments, and the level of cooperation with other states in the region.”
McKenzie wrote a case study section of the paper focused on the policy differences between Texas and Pennsylvania.
“Texas and Pennsylvania were identified as instructive for how the governors approached the eventual issuance of statewide stay-at-home orders,” McKenzie explained. “In Texas, the governor initially took more of a local-government-driven policy approach before issuing a sweeping statewide stay-at-home order. The governor of Pennsylvania took a gradual, state-driven approach for specific counties before mandating a full statewide stay-at-home order.”
The paper is titled “Managing a Pandemic at a Less Than Global Scale: Governors Take the Lead.” It will be published in a special issue of the American Review of Public Administration (ARPA), one of the leading journals in the public administration field. Its target audience is both scholars and practitioners. ARPA’s special issue focuses on COVID-19.