Government acting alone cannot solve the COVID-19 pandemic. Cities have amazingly smart, creative, resourceful, kind, and caring residents who are willing and able to help. Local governments must encourage and challenge residents to unleash their many talents to help their community cope in these difficult times. We will only get through this crisis when our residents find ways to help each other however possible.

Traditionally, the assumption has been that local government can fix any problem without the involvement of its residents. That is just plain wrong. In my 2015 article for PM magazine, “Today's Local Government Management Model,” I hypothesized that our current model of government is best described as Bitch and Fix: Residents complain about a problem and expect the city to fix the problem, no matter what it is. Generally, cities demand little of their residents other than payment of taxes, but this is wasteful of the talents and skills abundant in the community. 

Unless cities immediately begin to engage their residents and focus on building community, the COVID-19 crisis will overwhelm us. Now is the time for localities to request and challenge residents to figure out what they can do to help their communities, whether that help is medical, financial, or social. We need to help all residents understand that they have a responsibility for assisting their community in this difficult and demanding time.

The good news is that research shows that during a crisis, people on their own begin to reach out, help others, and build community. Cities cannot solve this crisis or any other major social epidemic—such as childhood obesity, failing schools, gangs, drugs, or homelessness—alone.

Here are some examples of ways that healthy residents are helping their communities while continuing to practice safe habits:

  • The DC area has coordinated volunteers to grocery shop for others who cannot leave their homes through a Facebook page
  • Arlington, Virginia, is using social media to share ideas on coping with self-isolation and preventing boredom, and to offer support to neighbors who may need assistance.
  • San Mateo County, California, has urged retired doctors or nurses to volunteer and provide advice to neighbors.
  • The Lake Washington School District has shared study plans and advice on homeschooling with parents.
  • In Hall County children are writing notes to senior centers that are closed to visitors. Reach out to a senior care facility in the community to see how you can best assist with their needs.
  • Arlington, Virignia, has hosted Information on their website for local restaurants to connect the community with open businesses. Contact local restaurants or shops (or follow them on social media) to ask how residents can help them stay in business, perhaps by ordering food to be delivered or purchasing gift cards for future use.
  • Streator, Illinois, has coordinated volunteers to assist food distribution at local schools. Many schools are continuing to provide free meals to children in need via pick-up or even delivery, so they may be able to use your help.
  • A local business in Topeka, Kansas, bought gift cards to help keep their favorite coffee shop open. “Pay it forward” by continuing to pay service providers even if not being used this time, such as house cleaners, gardeners, personal trainers, hairdressers, masseurs, dog walkers, house sitters, and many others. And if you can't give them your financial support right now, reach out anyway. Tell them you're thinking of them, and that you look forward to booking an appointment as soon as this is all over. Consider writing them a positive review online praising their services.

Localities should share these ideas (and others’ ideas) on their local government website, on, or other social media outlets to generate dialogue. Community residents should do what they can to assist with the medical and financial health of others in their area. During this crisis, cities should be asking people to make sacrifices where possible, to help others, and to pay it forward.

We all have “better angels,” but sometimes it takes someone or something to help us release them. Engaging residents to think about what they can do personally helps release our better angels.

Engage your residents to use their strengths and creativity to help others. Help build community by encouraging residents to take some responsibility for the medical and financial security of their community. I know they will step up!

For additional information, visit ICMA’s Coronavirus Resource page.

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