In three separate corners of Indianapolis, Ciana Rose Sorrentino, Madison Byarley, and Amanda Studor Bond all intently read through documents on their laptops. Even though it was summer, and they were miles apart, these O’Neill IUPUI MPA students were working together on a project that would ultimately have a national and international impact.
The women are student researchers currently working with O’Neill Assistant Professor Peter Federman and former O’Neill faculty member Cali Curley to track executive orders in response to COVID-19. Now, the team is launching an online database that codes the orders so people can compare stringency.
Research opportunities like this are open to all O’Neill students by searching the O’Neill faculty directory by research area and reaching out to faculty directly or by becoming a student research assistant. Byarley joined this project because of her position as Federman’s graduate research assistant.
“I’ve always been interested in the policymaking process,” Byarley says. “This is a pretty unprecedented situation. I was really interested in how leaders would quickly handle things they’ve never seen before and how different states with different cultures would handle it differently.”
For Studor Bond and Sorrentino, an in-class connection with Curley opened the door. They say the project gave them a way to help get involved in a situation that left so many people feeling helpless.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about everything going on,” Studor Bond says. “Working on this project gave me somewhere to put my energy and a way to contribute when the most you can really do is wear a mask and stay home.”
But while these three women stayed home, the work they were doing from their homes would have far-reaching effects.
“I didn’t realize how this project would be received when we began,” Sorrentino admits. “But as we continue moving forward, I realize that we’ve contributed to something that is going to be very helpful in the long run and is something that has never been done before.”
The project has indeed broken ground and garnered attention from government officials and other researchers around the country and world. From March through early summer, the team tracked and coded more than 1,500 COVID-related executive orders from every state.
These orders ran the gamut from size restrictions at gatherings to school and restaurant closures and to protecting individual rights, like the right to buy a gun or have an abortion.
“It was really interesting to see what states prioritized, which rights they prioritized, and what industries they prioritized,” Sorrentino says. “It really was a showcase of a state’s priorities.”
Byarley says while the first phase of the project ended as states reopened, the next phase is underway. They’ve also brought on O’Neill MPA student Amber Greaney to join the team and help manage the projects and dataset. They’re now in the process of looking at what states considered essential versus nonessential in their executive orders.
The team hopes its work will not only help policymakers, researchers, and the public become more aware of how quickly government is changing amid a pandemic, but that it also will help future generations be better prepared for the next crisis.
“One thing that I think this pandemic lacked was good, centralized leadership to present the information and provide recommendations based on science,” Studor Bond says. “I hope states in the future will hold presidential and federal leadership to account in the event of another national crisis.”
They hope leaders will place a higher value on communication, collaboration, and coordination between local, state, and federal agencies in the future—and they hope voters are paying attention to how their leaders responded.
“We’re recording political history as it happens,” Sorrentino says. “I hope this work influences the general public to pay attention to what their state and local governments are doing, to take a close look at the decisions being made, the complexity of those issues, and how those issues affect all of us.”
That includes the lives and livelihood of those in the service industry and in small businesses. Byarley says understanding these orders can give people a greater appreciation for many members of our own communities.
“I would hope this helps the general public humanize and appreciate service workers more,” Byarley says. “I hope people have as much appreciation for the people who help get food on their table or their cleaning supplies as they do for doctors and nurses. Both are so valuable in our society.”
As the women reflect on the work they’ve done, their ultimate hope is that they’ve helped create a better future for our communities while gaining skills that will help them in their own future endeavors.
“This work will definitely open up a lot of doors for each of us,” Sorrentino says. “I don’t think we can know yet how big of an impact this will have on our lives, but I have high hopes. I’m very happy with the experience and it has opened up my eyes to a lot of other things I would like to do in my future.”