The COVID-19 pandemic has forced federal agencies to adapt their regulations to meet emerging needs.
Twenty-three of the top 24 agencies surveyed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in October 2021 said they had implemented regulatory flexibilities in response to COVID-19. Regulatory flexibilities can include actions that alter regulatory standards, as well as activities that alter their applicability (eg, through waivers or exemptions) or application. A majority of agencies reported increased use of several types of flexibilities in response to COVID-19 compared to before the pandemic.
Officials from each of the five agencies surveyed by GAO — the Departments of Energy, Homeland Security, and Transportation, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Small Business Administration — said they designed and implemented implement flexibilities based on internal expertise developed from past events. For example, officials said their experience dealing with previous outbreaks, limited funding situations, and natural disasters, such as hurricanes Sandy and Maria, helped them develop responses to COVID-19. Officials from these agencies said they generally do not rely on specific plans, policies or other tools given the unique challenges posed by COVID-19.
An example given in the GAO’s June 23 report on its findings explained how Department of Transportation (DOT) officials used lessons learned from the fight against Ebola cases in the United States as a guide to help entities sector inexperienced in dealing with the problems associated with a new disease spreading in The onset of the pandemic saw widespread shortages of products that can help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, such as hand sanitizer. DOT’s experience in the Ebola response helped officials implement flexibility for transporting hand sanitizer from new manufacturers with little experience meeting DOT hazardous materials shipping requirements.
Meanwhile, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials said they had used their experience of past disasters such as Hurricane Maria to implement flexibility that made it easier to apply for the program. FEMA public assistance. According to FEMA officials, while the idea of simplifying the entire application process is new, it was designed based on a pilot used in past disasters. The streamlined process allowed applicants to avoid previously required in-person consultations with FEMA and significantly reduced the time it took for applicants to receive assistance.
Fifteen of the 24 agencies surveyed by GAO said they have already conducted an assessment of at least one regulatory flexibility to understand successes or challenges in using them. Ten agencies said they had used at least one such assessment to inform their decision-making, such as whether to change existing flexibility or use new flexibility. Managers from several of the selected agencies indicated that their agencies had not conducted assessments of at least one of the flexibilities discussed with GAO. Among the reasons the assessments were not conducted, officials said some flexibilities were meant to be temporary and their purpose remained to respond to and recover from the ongoing pandemic.
Read the full report on GAO