Building an agile government for an era of megachange

The White House, Washington DC (Shutterstock)
Editor's note:

This brief is part of the Brookings Blueprints for American Renewal & Prosperity project.

President Joe Biden is facing several crises as he takes office, from the COVID-19 pandemic to a lagging economy to systemic inequalities. With issues like climate change only getting worse, national-level emergencies are sure to continue into the future. To successfully manage and recover from these potential disasters, we need governments that are agile and can work across boundaries. By incorporating four principles into governmental processes—scenario planning, surge capacity, dual-use technology, and a return to experienced leadership—our institutions will be far better equipped to handle nationwide crises and large-scale change.

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Presidencies often are defined by their failures. George W. Bush couldn’t talk his way out of the botched recovery from Hurricane Katrina or the mistakes made in Iraq. Barack Obama couldn’t spin his way out of the crashing computer systems around the Affordable Care Act rollout. And Donald Trump could not evade the fact that nearly 400,000 people died from COVID-19 during the last year of his term. He was hopeless when it came to the details of policy decisions, such as use of the Defense Production Act, and he repeatedly tried to tell Americans that things were better when they were not.

In citing these examples, it is important that President Joe Biden and all future presidents understand that these large-scale failures are not unique to them but rather are illustrative of coming challenges. We are in an era of constant crisis, and our inability to deal with pandemics and global climate change means that we are likely to see continual dilemmas resulting from viruses, extreme weather, and the resulting disruptions of food, water, and health ecosystems. In all likelihood, these shifts will generate predictable human responses that range from mass migration and war to protectionism, nativism, and nationalism.

“We are in an era of constant crisis, and our inability to deal with pandemics and global climate change means that we are likely to see continual dilemmas.”

Given these realities, we need governments that are agile and can work quickly and across boundaries. Recently the National Academy of Public Administration published an important report titled “Building an Agile Federal Government: A Call to Action.” Taking lessons from successful software development, the report advocates for a governmentwide effort to change its emphasis to: end-user satisfaction; empowering staff; working in teams; using innovative tools; and identifying risk early.

In this paper, I identify four practices which, if incorporated into governmental processes, will help the transition to agile government. Each one of these practices, mostly taken from military protocols, will identify cross-agency imperatives and the legal and practical barriers to better coordination. If implemented systematically, these recommendations will create institutions that are far better equipped to handle crises, national disasters, and large-scale change.

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Policy recommendations

Scenario planning

Scenario planning is most often associated with war games that the military conducts on a regular basis. These exercises can range from a “tabletop” exercise where decision-makers discuss options while sitting in a conference room, to full-size or “field” exercises that mobilize people and materiel. The latter is costlier since it involves real soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, not to mention airplanes, ships, and tanks. A critical part of the war game is the “after action review,” a debriefing designed to figure out what went wrong, what went right, and what could be done better next time. Military scenarios are not only conducted around events that have a high probability of happening, such as war in the Persian Gulf, but they are also conducted around events that are low probability—and which may seem far-fetched at the time. For instance, the U.S. Air Force has been conducting space war-games, including one involving attacks on U.S. satellites. And soldiers are training to operate in the field as if their GPS signals went dark to prepare for the possibility that an enemy could take down all our satellites.

Scenario planning also occurs on the domestic side of the government, but it is not as integral to operations and training as it is in the military. After 9/11, states and localities ran exercises dealing with mass casualties following a terrorist attack, often a “dirty bomb” (a small-scale nuclear weapon). In 2005, the Department of Homeland Security ran a full-scale simulation in two states—Connecticut and New Jersey. In Connecticut, the attack was a car bombing; in New Jersey, it was the release of a biological weapon. Natural disasters have been “war-gamed” as well. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) ran a weeklong exercise in summer 2004 in which a Category 3 hurricane named Pam caused more than 1 million evacuations, the destruction of hundreds of thousands of buildings, and overflowing levees in New Orleans. In other words, the simulation, which cost $500,000 to conduct, was eerily prescient of the situation that actually occurred slightly more than a year later with Hurricane Katrina. And in August 2019, the Department of Health and Human Services ran a weeklong exercise called Crimson Contagion. It involved 19 federal government departments, 12 states and many other localities, hospitals, tribal governments, and public health entities in a scenario around the outbreak of a particularly deadly form of influenza that originated in China.

But conducting an exercise, even an expensive one, does not guarantee lessons learned. In a review of Hurricane Katrina, it was clear that many of the recommendations coming out of the exercise were ignored or not implemented. This was also largely true for the lessons to come out of two biosecurity war games, Operation Dark Winter in 2001 and Atlantic Storm in 2005. In January 2017, during the Obama to Trump transition, the Obama administration—having gone through the Ebola scare—insisted on going through a pandemic exercise with incoming Trump administration officials. However, as my colleague Kathryn Dunn Tenpas shows, it had little effect on readiness:

“Though recalling the details of a three-hour, table-top exercise roughly three years after it occurred is challenging, it is even more difficult when only 8 of the 30 Trump attendees are still working for the president. Perhaps more significantly, the transition exercise readout identified key White House offices involved in pandemic preparedness, and my research reveals the tremendous upheaval that has occurred in these pandemic-related offices.”

And, as is evident from everything that has unfolded since, the Crimson Contagion scenario—conducted just seven months before the coronavirus upended American society—failed to make an impact.

Scenario-planning exercises show policymakers where the hang-ups are in a crisis. For instance, the public health system of the United States is highly decentralized, leading to serious issues in distributing the COVID-19 vaccine. The system appears to be in chaos. As Julie Swann, a systems engineer at North Carolina State University with expertise in vaccine distribution explains:

“Our public health system is decentralized, with multiple entities making decisions. There are several information systems that have different functions and do not all talk to each other. On an everyday basis, the public health system does not need to have a robust information system tracking millions of products to their final destination for rapid response to changing supply and demand. There are also some new information systems being deployed; this could be helpful or it could add to the complexity.”

There are several problems with scenario planning that help explain why it is so rare on the domestic side of government. For one thing, most domestic agencies just don’t have the money for a full-scale exercise. Imagine an exercise involving a small nuclear device going off in an American city. Just the overtime required for first responders, police, and medical personnel to participate would strain many city budgets. In addition, scenario planning on the domestic side involves many levels of government. The U.S. military spent four decades struggling to achieve “jointness” among the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force; on the domestic side, we need the equivalent of jointness among federal, state, and local workers involved in crisis response. We already know that there are communication gaps, legal hurdles, and command and control questions that impede effective crisis management. Only a commitment to regular scenario planning on a range of possible crises can uncover the vulnerabilities and trigger reforms.

Surge capacity

Originating in the medical world, the concept of surge capacity refers to the ability to care for a large and unexpected volume of patients, as might occur after a mass-casualty event. But the military has developed its own surge capacity. Financing a large, standing military is expensive. In fact, most countries go years and years without having to use their military, which is why it doesn’t make sense to pay, year in and year out, for all the capacity that would be needed to fight a war. Another way to look at this is that the United States spends a great deal of money on the “preparedness” of its military for low-probability events.

The solution to this problem in the military has been the reserves (Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines) and the National Guard. Reservists are required to give up some time during the year to maintain their readiness to engage in combat if needed. They participate in some sort of boot camp and after that they are paid to train—usually something like one weekend a month and two weeks a year. They are different from the National Guard in that they have specialized skills that augment or provide surge capacity in combat situations. The National Guard is also sometimes called in to serve alongside full-time military units, but it also participates and assists during civilian crises. During the coronavirus, National Guard members have done everything from distributing food to sanitizing nursing homes, and they are now being utilized to help states set up mass vaccination centers. The final group that provides the military with surge capacity is the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR), military personnel with special skills who are recently retired.

“We need to build a corps of ‘reservists’ in the health-care field, in the emergency management field, in the supply chain field, and among logistics experts, to name just a few.”

What the reserves, the National Guard, and the IRR provide the military is surge capacity. Night after night during the pandemic, Americans watched exhausted nurses and doctors try to cope with the influx of patients. What our health-care system lacked was something like an organized reserve corps. Nurses and doctors did arrive from other states to help out in New York City, for example, and later on health professionals from New York returned the favor, but participation was informal and episodic. We need to build a corps of “reservists” in the health-care field (the Centers for Disease Control and public health reservists), in the emergency management field (FEMA reservists), in the supply chain field, and among logistics experts (Commerce Department reservists), to name just a few. These people should be paid a modest amount to train and be ready to augment those on the front lines during a crisis.

Medical disasters, terrorist disasters, and natural disasters always create economic disasters in which the government needs to get money to citizens quickly. Whether it is unemployment compensation, money for rebuilding infrastructure, or funds to keep people on payrolls during a pandemic shutdown, the government faces enormous pressure to get money out and to get it out fairly. At the beginning of a crisis, the civil servants who normally run these programs are swamped and frustration grows among the public. For instance, unemployment insurance claims are processed by state governments. In New Jersey, civil servants processed 214,836 claims in the first 14 weeks of 2020; the usual number of claims processed at the beginning of the year has ranged from 7,000 to 12,000. In other words, their workload was more than 18 times the highest workload they had seen in recent times. Or take the Small Business Administration (SBA), tasked with processing the Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) loans so businesses could keep workers on the payroll during the virus. In all of 2019, the SBA processed 63,000 loans (of all types) to small businesses; in just round one of PPP loans, the agency processed 1.5 million loans.

The surge-capacity concept can work in payments as well as it can in other areas. Many government workers spend their careers processing payments—Social Security, Medicare, veterans benefits, or unemployment insurance. Of course, all payments differ in important respects, but someone who is accustomed to processing one kind of government payment can be trained quickly to process others. Thus, the government can build a surge capacity out of its own employees and its retirees.

Finally, the civilian sector can be mobilized and trained in various aspects of disaster response. Former state Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield in California’s San Fernando Valley created the Emergency Preparedness Community Action Team. Its objective is to get more residents trained to help first responders during disaster situations, such as earthquakes. Another example is Team Rubicon, a not-for-profit organization founded in 2010 that is composed of former Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans. They are organized to deploy to disasters in the U.S and around the world. Using technological skills, construction skills, and organizational skills honed under harsh combat situations, these veterans can deploy to an area and help out with whatever is needed.

Surge capacity is not only needed for people, but for things. Here the federal government has a tool that is 70 years old: the Defense Production Act (DPA). It was enacted in 1950 to quickly build up military materiel for the Korean War, and it took its inspiration from legislation enacted during World War II that allowed the United States to supply not just its own military but the militaries of our allies around the world. It was later amended to apply to non-military emergencies, such as natural disasters or terrorist attacks. It allows the president to direct industry to put aside its regular business and produce whatever is needed for the war or emergency effort. It agrees to pay companies a fair market value for their goods but does not permit replacement of profits lost when normal business is delayed. A company cannot turn down a request under DPA.

Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation faced critical shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators. But Trump was slow to delegate DPA authority, arguing that the threat of government intervention was sufficient for the private sector to get the job done. When the authorities were delegated, they mostly went to the production of masks and ventilators. Meanwhile, others—most notably House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—begged Trump to be much more aggressive in his use of DPA to increase needed supplies. After vaccines were developed, the Trump administration used the DPA in order to ramp up manufacturing.

In contrast to Trump, who was slow to abandon the free market, President Biden has been an early and enthusiastic supporter of the DPA. On his second day in office, he issued a series of executive orders designed to impact all businesses in the vaccine supply chain, and his delegations are expected to be used much more aggressively than similar delegations were used under Trump. They have already identified critical shortfalls, such as the need for N95 masks, isolation gowns, gloves, and swabs. This is the type of capability that future presidents may need due to natural disasters, government breakdowns, or health crises.

Dual-use technology

Disasters not only need trained personnel, they often end up needing more products than in normal times. Here is where the concept of dual-use technology needs to be imported to the domestic side of the government. Dual-use technology refers to products that have civilian uses but can also be used for military purposes. Traditionally the United States military was such a heavy presence in the market that it could induce the private sector to build whatever it wanted. But that changed with the information economy. Paul Kamenski, undersecretary of defense in the Clinton administration, was the architect of the dual-use technology movement in government. Speaking in 1997, he explained the evolution as follows:

“In aggregate terms, commercial industry surpassed the DoD in research and development spending way back in 1965. And the disparity between DoD and commercial sector investment in R&D has been growing wider ever since. This difference means that the technological momentum of the United States is being driven to a greater extent by commercial market forces rather than the defense market.”

Since then, the military has identified products in the marketplace that can be used for military as well as civilian purposes. For instance, much of the precision technology that goes into medical imaging can also be used to manufacture night-vision and thermal-imaging technologies, which give soldiers enormous advantages in the field. Dual-use military items are frequently found in fields such as electronics, computers, nuclear construction, telecommunications, and avionics. Because the United States does not want foreign adversaries or terrorists using them for military purposes, many of these items are subject to export controls.

A related concept is the “defense industrial base,” a term commonly used to refer to the capacity of the United States to produce its own weapons. For example, it is important to keep a strong, domestic steel-making industry even though many other nations make steel more cheaply than we do. And as supply chains have become global, the Defense Department worries about “foreign dependencies” within the weapons supply chain.

These concepts are critical to military preparedness, but they are also crucial to other problem areas. It seems that every day during the pandemic we have been hampered by shortages of the “weapons” needed to fight the pandemic. First, the government scrambled to get manufacturers to switch to the production of ventilators. The shortages then ran to PPE. Then we learned of shortages not only of “reagents” needed to make the COVID-19 tests, but also shortages of the swabs needed to take the tests and shortages of machines needed to run the tests. As the vaccines were produced, everyone worried about whether or not we’d have enough vials, needles, and reagents to actually deliver them.

Just as the Pentagon has people in it who are worried about the defense-industry supply chain and who catalogue dual-use technologies, the domestic side of government needs to understand both the supply chain and dual-use technologies for things like health disasters. As we have learned the hard way, the American “health-care industrial base” is weak. For example, there are serious concerns in letting so many of our drugs be manufactured abroad. It must be repaired, and we must strengthen the dual-use approach to health-care technology.

In addition to making sure that we are not dependent on other countries for critical drug supplies, the Food and Drug Administration should speed up research for what is known as “off-label” use; that is, drugs that are approved to treat conditions other than those they were developed to treat. In medicine, off-label drugs are analogous to dual-use technology in the weapons business.

Competence over inexperience

These concepts—scenario planning, surge capacity, and dual-use technology—need to become as embedded in the domestic side of the government as they are in the military. But none of this will happen without competent leadership. More than anything, the COVID-19 crisis has shown the importance of competence and experience in government. Competence cannot occur absent experience, and experience in the private sector does not always adequately prepare someone to lead in the public sector.

“More than anything, the COVID-19 crisis has shown the importance of competence and experience in government.”

In recent years, we have tended to turn presidential elections into celebrity contests. Republicans actually nominated a reality television star. But Democrats too have toyed with celebrity candidates, from the actor Warren Beatty to the media mogul Oprah Winfrey. It is time voters stopped treating experience as something to vote against, and it is time that the political parties get back in the nomination game to conduct some level of peer review over who they will nominate. Experience is a necessary precondition to making the complex, agile systems discussed above work. As we face more and more unexpected crises, experienced leaders are essential.

The Trump presidency is a case study in why inexperience in the executive branch is a problem. Trump is the first president we have ever elected with no public sector experience—and it showed during the COVID-19 pandemic. (It’s worth noting that state governors, most of whom do have government experience, have gotten much higher marks from the public than Trump—and for the simple reason that they seem to know what they’re doing.) In the early months of the crisis, Trump added to the disinformation and chaos surrounding the situation almost every time he spoke: telling Americans that the virus was not serious by asserting his “hunches” about data, that case counts would go down soon, that we were very close to a vaccine when it was still months away, and falsely arguing that the death rate was far lower than what was being reported were just a few of his televised gaffes. After every presidential statement, “clarifications” were needed. Trump has the unique distinction of giving a national address meant to calm the country that had the effect of taking the stock market down over 1,000 points.

The showcase for Trump’s inexperience was the White House Coronavirus Task Force. At its best, it was a forum for the parts of the government that were doing the real work of responding to the crisis; at its worst, it was downright dangerous. Sometimes, when real information was conveyed by experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president stood idly by—a mere master of ceremonies. Actual damage was done, however, from the president’s attempts to get into the mix. It has been reported that he usually did not attend the actual task force meetings and it showed—he read prepared statements as if he was seeing them for the first time. And more seriously, he mislead the public who tuned in looking for guidance on whether to wear masks and whether hydroxychloroquine was a miracle drug. His worst moment came when he seemed to suggest that ingesting bleach might cure the virus.

In the meantime, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, was put in charge of a supply chain task force. Kushner had no experience in this area, nor did the volunteers he assembled. According to reporting by The New York Times, the task force got in the way of the professionals and prioritized friends of the president. The result was more bureaucratic chaos. As it became clear that the daily White House briefings on the coronavirus were—in spite of their high ratings—hurting instead of helping President Trump, they were dropped. His inexperience was in full view in the midst of a crisis.

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We have not seen the last of national emergencies; indeed, coronavirus continues to ravage our nation at the time this paper is published. Climate change alone is bound to deliver a raft of unexpected disasters in the years to come. A large and sophisticated federal government has enormous capacities, but with every crisis comes the realization that the government often has trouble mounting an effective and timely response. The solution is not to build more government around the last crisis, just as it is not to stockpile things that may or may not be obsolete by the next crisis. The solution is to build the habits and abilities of agility into the federal government that exists. Failure to do that will lead to a public sector than cannot handle upcoming problems—and possibly lead to devastating results.

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