It’s been more than six months since states first began quarantines due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, research from O’Neill IUPUI is shedding new light on the many executive orders enacted to mitigate the spread of the virus.
O’Neill assistant professor Peter Federman, former O’Neill faculty member Cali Curley (now at the University of Miami), and a team of student research assistants began the project in March. A grant from the Office of the Indiana University Vice President for Research helped get the project off the ground, and the O’Neill School provided matching funds. Thus far, they’ve collected and coded more than 1,500 executive orders.
“We’re really focused on tracking and pulling out the critical pieces of information that are impacting people’s lives,” Federman says. “We’re bringing all of it together and providing a simple way for people to understand what’s really happening, without having to read through 60-page orders in legalese.”
In October, they’ll launch their first public dashboard tracking executive orders, from the time when states first started closures until they began to reopen. The idea is to have all the information in one easily accessible place that serves as both a resource on state actions and a record of how state laws are changing because of COVD-19.
“There are a lot of executive orders that touch every aspect of life, well beyond COVID,” Federman says. “This project tracks how the state policy and legal environments are changing as the pandemic stretches on and as states move between reopening and closure.”
He says while there doesn’t seem to be a quick return to normal on the horizon, it’s important to see how our next normal compares with the one we left behind. This data provides a window into how governors handled the pandemic, whether they’ve issued orders or delegated that job to others in their administration, and where they’ve stood on key issues.
“There’s a lot of speculation from all corners about what certain orders mean and how long they’ll last,” Federman says. “Some of those concerns do come from a valid place. It’s worthwhile to demonstrate empirically through data what’s happening and to have a record of what states did, how they did it, what impact it had, and what happens next.”
The dashboard organizes and categorizes each state’s executive orders, ranks states by order stringency, and allows users to see how the information correlates with other things, like social distancing and the number of COVID-19 cases. It also lets users filter information by various factors—including age, income, and even the political affiliation of governors.
For policymakers, the dashboard provides one location where leaders can see how their state’s response compares to others—and to see critical differences that exist even in seemingly similar situations.
Federman points out that the data shows a state’s political environment, the political party of its governor, and its broader sociocultural context do have an impact on what the state does. He says they’re also finding that some states seem to take similar approaches in many respects.
“One of the things we’re exploring is whether there is evidence of policy learning—whether certain states are learning from others,” he says. “We want to know how our work can help them do that.”
Their data caught the attention of leaders in Oklahoma, who reached out after hearing about the project. Earlier this summer, the team met with Oklahoma’s state health commissioner, representatives from its governor’s office, and other leaders to discuss Oklahoma’s approach.
Word is traveling fast in the research community as well. Institutions from Michigan to New York and Mexico to France and Germany have also contacted the team to learn more about the project. They’ve been invited to contribute to upcoming books and journals, with a handful of articles either already in circulation or nearing publication.
“We’re fairly confident that we have the most robust and extensive collection of coded and analyzed sub-national level executive orders on COVID-19 of any researchers in the world, especially in the United States,” Federman says. “We really are the source that has not only of all these orders in one place and coded for reliability, but also multiple lines of coding that can pull out the nuances between them.”
Students are behind much of that work. Federman says engaging students allows a flow of new ideas and creativity while helping students who want to go into academia as well as those who plan to pursue practical policy-focused careers.
“Doing this work allows them to better understand data and research, especially if they’re the ones eventually tasked with interpreting it for others in the future,” he points out.
They’re also focused on helping students who aren’t directly involved in this particular project.
“Students studying emergency management can look at this research and see how executive orders are connected to the original emergency orders,” Federman explains. “A student could use this as part of their research project. A professor could use it to talk about executive functions of the administrative state or emergency management or public health.”
Yet Federman acknowledges the limitations of the data to this point. He notes that testing limitations and discrepancies in reporting hamper researchers’ ability to judge a state’s success based on its number of COVID-19 cases. In addition, their current dashboard provides correlations but not causations—at least not yet.
That, he says, is one of their next steps. They want to work to see what causal findings emerge from the data. They also hope to develop a second dashboard to track states’ progress through their reopening phases. To accomplish those goals, they’ll need more students, more partnerships, and more funding. But it’s a critical step in understanding how COVID-19 is changing our country, our states, and our communities.
“State governments are rapidly changing the law, so accountability is a big part of all of this,” Federman says. “Regardless of whether you agree with certain restrictions, we can all agree that these are significant and meaningful changes—that means it’s worth keeping track of them all.”