Roughly every 10 years for the last five decades, the federal government has had to deal with major crises ranging from economic to terrorist to pandemic. We now face the novel COVID-19 pandemic, and it has presented CIOs at all levels of government with unprecedented challenges to respond to the critical needs of the country.
Having worked in the Office of Management and Budget, as a congressional committee staff member, and in industry during previous crises, I have noted a common three-phase cycle always happens, which I'll refer to as the "three Rs": Response, Recovery, and Restructure. The cycle plays out this way:
- Response: Chaotic triage activity always seems to overwhelm even the best continuity-of-operations plans and key mission-critical programs needed to get benefits and assets to those most in need.
- Recovery: When the situation stabilizes, agency officials can take a breath and figure out how to bring order out of chaos, taking advantage of OMB M-20-21 guidance to address multiple audits of actions taken in the heat of crisis.
- Restructure: Audits and reports lead to new agencies, reorganizations, and programs to make sure the country never has to experience the same crisis again (e.g., creation of the Department of Homeland Security based on the 9/11 Commission report).
Recovery and restructure activities during the 21st century have increased major technology spending (33% after 9/11, about 10% after the housing crisis) before flattening. Recovery and restructure phases from COVID-19 necessarily require increased technology spending and may even radically restructure the government.
With the response-phase activities related to our current crisis underway, let's focus on the recovery phase. Stated simply, the recovery phase will be substantially more expensive and less effective if the government does not make a major investment in today's digital government tools and techniques. In fact, with the massive volume of transactions and data generated in the COVID-19 response, CIOs will have to help agency leaders recognize the need for cloud computing, big data analytics, and artificial intelligence/machine learning to meet the historic challenges.