Pooling Perspective on COVID-19 (May 18, 2020)

  

By Ann Gergen, Executive Director

And, just like that, many pools are now focused on topics related to reopening. 

You are likely beginning to guide your members on whether, when and how they can safely reopen facilities and restart services. You’re probably also developing plans for pool staff to come back to the office and resume member visits. 

Whether looking at your own operations or providing member guidance, there are a number of tactical questions you might consider: What jurisdictional guidance applies to your pool or member entities? How many people can reasonably be in one space at the same time? How can your pool or member entities manage for employees who are sick, have underlying health concerns or have to care for others? Are some operations simply too risky to be resumed?

Each tactical recommendation or decision a pool makes comes with strategic-level communications challenges and opportunities. Here are a few ways I’ve heard member pools make and message key decisions within a member service mindset:

1. Acknowledge optics, but make and express decisions based upon member need.

Because pools function in partnership with and as an extension of member entities, it is sometimes appropriate for pools to align their operational scope with members’ fiscal constraints.

But that’s not always the case. Pools are uniquely efficient mechanisms of service delivery to and among their members, so an expenditure by a pool can sometimes support or temporarily replace affected member entity operations. 

For example, one pool recently took a hard look at its operational budget in light of expected public entity revenue reductions that could last at least ten years. Rather than cut back, this pool ultimately decided to slightly increase allocations for several of its core member services. 

While it’s appropriate to acknowledge the financial limitations faced by public entities, basing pool decisions on member needs (whatever that looks like for your pool) will be most effective over the long term.

2. Sharpen language when communicating operational decisions.

At times, your pool might seek to shift operational priorities and expenditures. Doing so requires language that sends a clear message in instances where you know others will be paying attention. 

For example, one pool recently used “salary recommendations commensurate with the current member environment” rather than “salary freeze” to describe a key operational decision. The impact to staff was still obvious, but contextual language ensured everyone understood the underlying rationale.

3. Focus on essential tasks, not essential employees.

There’s work that has to be accomplished during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there may be new ways to bundle tasks to minimize person-to-person contact and related risks. A focus on essential tasks, regardless of who performs them, will allow for the most effective return-to-work planning.

As an example, one pool identified several unintentional consequences of using the term “essential employee.” The employees deemed “essential” felt burdened because they couldn’t see their at-risk family members after being in the workplace. Those referred to as “non-essential” felt like their contributions were less valuable.

In response, this pool reframed its language to focus on “essential tasks” rather than essential employees. This allowed its staff to accomplish necessary pool work without undermining its critical employee-forward culture.

4. Clearly articulate the rationale for and use of net position.

Many pools are trying to determine the most effective use of net position (also referred to as “member equity” or “surplus”) for members amid shifting priorities. 

One pool initially considered a dividend release to give its members an immediate financial supplement. But, after weighing its options and member needs, it decided long-term rate stability was more important. Instead of issuing a dividend, this pool will use its net position to offset rate increases that would otherwise be necessary, smoothing pressure on member budgets over several years.

Other pools have issued refunds for a portion of current-year contributions for coverage like auto liability. There’s no “right” way to use your pool’s net position. But, whatever your solution, be sure to describe your rationale accurately and clearly articulate your pool’s strategic intent. 

In some cases, your pool’s financial strength could come under greater scrutiny during this period. As member entities, legislators and other constituents look for alternative sources to offset public-sector expenses and bolster revenues in response to COVID-19, a pool’s financial strength is a natural point of inquiry. Now is the time to be clear about the reasons your pool holds its net position and the membership value of a strong surplus.

5. Differentiate pooling from traditional insurance, and focus on the future.

Times of crisis are when pools really shine. Regardless of your pool’s particular legal structure, the fact that you share a common philosophy with your members and are governed by them is a market differentiator. 

Take this opportunity to highlight your pool’s coverage, cost and risk management benefits for members. One pool has developed a weekly members-only blog and conversational webinar series, answering real-time questions on safely reopening facilities, how changing use of a municipal building impacts coverage, the importance of cyber vigilance, expected COVID-19 litigation, and more. 

In every interaction, this pool uses language that underscores its partnership approach with members. Importantly, it also avoids drawing parallels between COVID-19 and the hard market crisis that led to the creation of public entity pools 40 years ago. This pool focuses on the present and its promise to help members long into the future.

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There are, of course, many other examples of successful pool communication efforts during COVID-19. Looking at how other pools share information is a great way to review your pool’s communication efforts and tactical decisions with an eye toward maximum member impact. 

To see how other pools are sharing information and find good ideas you can replicate, visit our COVID-19 Resource Center for links to pool resource hubs, pool messaging about remote work, reopening resources from pools to members, pool event cancellation communications, and more.

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Ann Gergen is AGRiP’s executive director and a former pool administrator. She has worked closely with and for pools, public entities, reinsurers and related service providers throughout her career.

Each week, Ann will offer insight into COVID-19 issues AGRiP members are experiencing and related trends to monitor. For more, access the full series of COVID-19 perspective posts.

Access AGRiP’s COVID-19 Resource Center for coronavirus information, links and news relevant to pools. Email us with questions or comments, or connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.

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