September 28, 2020
Opinion Editorial Written by George Batsakis, EVP of 1901 Group

Thanks, COVID-19. Let’s Wrap This Up, OK?

Thanks, COVID-19. Let’s Wrap This Up, OK?Is it just me? Or are most people ready to get back to work and make a real contribution – to improve things, make them better than before, better than ever?

Now, I’m not minimizing the potentially deadly effect of the virus on the most vulnerable members of society or offering a critique of the informed responses from public health experts and government officials – Nearly all of which, by the way, have been well-intentioned, pragmatic and based on the best information available at the time. No, I’m just expressing what I think many fellow Americans are thinking. Americans are doers, and we hold fortitude in the face of adversity among the highest virtues. Just look at the outpouring of sincere gratitude to the frontline public health and medical professionals who have shown great courage in the face of the COVID-19 threat. We honor them and their commitment to us and the greater good. They’ve done their part and set the example – now it’s time for the rest of us, and the government agencies that support us to follow suit, accept the “new normal” and get back on “offence”.

So, what’s next, really?

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” – Epictetus, Ancient Greek Stoic Philosopher

Old Epictetus was right about that and it’s going to take prudence and fortitude to get the country “rolling again” and some things may never be the same. Not all of that is bad. The COVID-19 event exposed gaps in our national and economic security and has also shed light on practices and institutions and that are in desperate need of reform and transformation. Take for example the fragility of our overall education system, from K-12 through higher education. Many schools and jurisdictions were largely incapable of delivering services, so they simply shut down. Others transitioned to remote learning without incident. Actions from “lessons learned” analysis will undoubtedly focus on how to emulate the institutions that were most resilient, “ahead of the curve” in technology adoption, and had better business models, workforce readiness and efficient and effective continuity of operations programs.

Some Local, State and Federal government institutions were similarly exposed due to the COVID-19 crisis. Identification, distribution and supply chain security for critical supplies and facilities were among the first identified gaps in the response effort. Later, second and third order effects around policy decisions and their implementation confusion among various institutions, across the public domain. The 24-hour news organizations made their own histrionic contributions to the discussion, not all of it informed or particularly helpful.

Meanwhile, government officials leaned on statistical models and other data, along with expert advice to make the best possible decisions based on the data available. In many cases, those decisions were well-informed and executed but in others, the lack of solid data and agreement on how best to proceed led to delays in decision making and, in some cases, an over-correction toward “worst case” scenarios. There is no question that effects of the COVID-19 virus, and our reaction to it will have long term implications for government and American society.

Taking back the Initiative through technology enabled transformation.

“Technology is a resource-liberating mechanism. It can make the once scarce, now abundant.” –Peter Diamandis, Author Abundance, The Future is Better Than You Think

Having spent most of my career around technology, national security and government, it’s hard not to consider the implications of an aging and difficult to maintain information technology infrastructure has on the government’s ability to manage crisis events like COVID-19.   Technology alone isn’t a panacea for times like this, but the advancement and accessibility of information technologies, data science tools, platforms and delivery models are the penultimate enabler (after exceptional mission leadership) for effective and efficient government decision making. 

For the past decade, many Federal government agencies have made solid efforts to modernize and take advantage of “next generation” information technologies, networks and infrastructure.  Some agencies have taken bold steps to consolidate and secure their critical data, rationalize and protect mission applications and networks and simplify the services they deliver using modern software development techniques and platforms.  Many of these technologies are commonplace in the commercial market and delivered as cost effective “utilities” in “as a service” delivery models.  The agencies and companies that support them, including cloud service providers, platform software companies, and managed service providers, were “ahead of the curve” in transforming their operations to take advantage of these technologies and business models are now among the most resilient and capable of providing services and support during times of crisis, including the current one.   

Both the Obama and Trump administrations have made concerted efforts capitalize on increasingly greater available technology capabilities and have made IT modernization, cloud adoption, cyber security top budget priorities.  Still most federal agencies lag far behind where they would like to be in this area and are in the early phases of grappling with the overall scope and complexity of the problem.  Transforming how government plans, programs, budgets and operates using technology as means to drive better performance and resilience is a complex problem-set, to be sure. Still, further delays will increase technical debt and already costly maintenance contracts of aging technology infrastructure.  All of this only further places these agencies ability to support and respond to national or regional crises at risk.   As part of re-taking the initiative and getting the country “back on its feet”, we should consider the characteristics of the most effective and resilient agencies in light of the COVID-19 event, and systematically apply those lessons to other federal, state and local agencies.

Technology enabled transformation for a government agency requires leadership and a multi-year commitment, but the best practice approach is fairly straightforward – its begins with an end state vision and the following high level process , 1)  simplify IT infrastructure, 2) consolidate operations, 3) move mission applications and data to secure cloud infrastructures, 4) drive cost and operational efficiencies, and 5) consumes IT services “as a service” based on demand.  This is the approach being taken in some of the most effective and resilient government agencies today and presents the best way to transform, and shift focus from managing the infrastructure to focusing on the critical data available to agency to support decision making and in executing the mission of the agency.

Every government agency is in the data business now. 

“The data will set you free.” –Alan Mulally, former CEO, Ford Motor Company.

Several years ago, when the Ford Motor Company was facing tough times, performance issues, and erosion of its market share, their new CEO, Alan Mulally, led a transformation of the company around the premise that “bad news” should be shared broadly so that mistakes aren’t repeated.  They mined their own data to “head off” challenges and inform critical decisions.  The focus on data and a change in the Ford culture ultimately helped to return the company to greatness.   Federal Agencies can benefit from Mullaly’s example here – “data”, now more than ever is the most important resource for decision making and the delivery of services in government agencies.  

We live in unprecedented times where technology and data science including artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation in general are becoming more and more accessible.  “Data” is frequently referred to as the “new oil” – to be mined, processed and delivered as the critical means of economic growth.  The “new oil” is ushering in a “fourth industrial revolution” that along with ubiquitous “internet of things” devices, 5G mobile and enhanced satellite communications, and other technologies, will transform nearly every aspect of society, including government.  Now is the time for government agencies to “seize the initiative” and build capacity to keep pace with the opportunities these new data and network centric technologies present. 

In an era of pandemic health crisis, economic downturns, and cyber and other national security threats, government agencies should focus attention on the “data layer” that resides in each of their public policy domains to provide better services and to support decision making.  The Federal government owns “mountains” of potentially valuable data that could be employed to improve services, protect its citizens and strengthen our economy.  As in any technology enabled transformation, putting the expertise and systems in-place to make this happen will require vision, leadership and commitment.  The technologies related to AI, ML and automation are maturing quickly but like technology enabling infrastructure are merely a “means to an end” not the end-state.   

Wrapping up – Thanks again, COVID-19. 

Technology and technology enabled transformation affords the government a viable and proven path to “go back on offense” and fill the gaps identified by the COVID-19 crisis.  The approach isn’t particularly risky from a technical perspective but will require leadership and vision to build the momentum required for a sustained transformation of governmental business processes, bureaucracies, and cultures.  The journey begins with recognition that the American people are resourceful, innovative and sometimes demanding of the government that serves them.  Continued focus on how to improve services, protect the nation’s interest and its people will require a “re-thinking” of conventional wisdom and traditional policy approaches.  The assertion here is that technology offers a clear path forward to address the challenges of today, while preparing ourselves for the future.


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