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The Trump Administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder that poorly designed government can be a matter of life and death. This article explains how the Administration’s careless and delayed response to the crisis was made immeasurably worse by its confused and confusing reallocation of authority to perform or supervise tasks essential to reducing the virus’s ravages.

After exploring the rationale for and impact of prior federal reorganizations responding to public health crises, the article shows how a combination of unnecessary and unhelpful overlapping authority and a thoughtless mix of centralized and decentralized authority contributed to the Trump Administration’s slow and ineffective effort to stem the virus’s tide. Furthermore, the Administration’s earlier dismantling of the structure built in the wake of prior outbreaks disabled a mechanism crucial to any federal response to public health threats—its ability to coordinate the efforts of public and private actions to effectively combat the crisis.

The article identifies numerous valuable lessons about government organization from the COVID-19 experience that should guide policymakers’ deliberations in the likely event that they embark upon an effort to address the mistakes plaguing the Trump Administration’s dismal response. More generally, it uses the government’s response to COVID-19 to explore a number of insights about how to better think about and configure government institutions to prepare for and manage complex social problems like a pandemic.

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