We the Partnership

The federal government faced down pandemic challenges, delivering “bright spots” during a dark time

By Kari Rea, Zoë Brouns | February 22, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the country in unprecedented ways, upending traditional ways of working, living and governing. We’ve suffered incalculable losses, as the still-high rates of COVID-19 death and infection demonstrate. What has not changed is the public’s need for essential services, and federal agencies are providing them: The government has remained open, and the federal workforce has stayed on the job.

While the idea of “bright spots” may seem dissonant during a pandemic, it’s important to recognize that many innovative things happened beyond the public’s view and thousands of public servants still found a way to serve. Whether processing veterans’ benefits, managing loan applications for small businesses, or distributing millions of vaccine doses to the public, government keeps delivering—often in new and better ways. 

During these challenging times, agencies innovated and made improvements that are likely to continue after people return to workplaces and the country adjusts to its new normal.

The Partnership compiled a list of accomplishments and outlined actions from across government to highlight the ingenuity, efficiency and adaptability agencies have demonstrated in serving the public.

This list features 65 bright spots related to the federal government’s COVID-19 response, showcasing how federal agencies responded to the pandemic in four key issue areas: leadership and stewardship, talent, innovation and technology, and collaboration.

Six case studies delve deeper into how some agencies acted to both combat the novel coronavirus and meet the public’s unprecedented need for services. The stories describe how federal agencies faced down operational and other challenges the pandemic caused, responding in innovative ways during difficult times. From developing a chatbot to respond to veterans’ concerns and reducing wait times for health care services, to rapidly increasing staff capacity to distribute relief funds for small businesses, these case studies underscore how federal agencies have innovated under pressure.

The global pandemic leaves little doubt that the nation’s future depends on government’s ability to solve tough challenges. Yet years of neglect, diminished capacity and leadership shortcomings have taken a toll on the government’s ability to serve the public effectively. Despite these challenges, there have been many bright spots due to the extraordinary work of dedicated public servants—but we owe them a better-functioning government that will enable a more effective response to future challenges.

To meet America’s current and future needs, we must rebuild our nation’s most important democratic institution. To help, the Partnership launched the Roadmap for Renewing our Federal Government initiative. The roadmap identifies priority issues for the Biden-Harris administration and offers recommendations to revitalize the federal government.

Federal agencies have shown that, despite all odds, they can produce “bright spots” during dark times. With the right systems and resources in place, and the continued dedication of hard-working public servants, the federal government could fulfill its promise and agencies can continue innovating in the face of tough challenges.

Does your agency have a “bright spot” story? Share it with us here!


Kari Rea
Zoë Brouns