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Why right now is the most challenging time in history for government CIOs

CIO (Panchenko Vladimir/Shutterstock.com) 

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 breadth 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.

Here are four areas where the government must apply digital government tools:

  • Administering grants and loans: Without the help of large-scale data analytics and algorithms and the ability to integrate citizen-sourced fraud and abuse insights, it will be extremely difficult to manage risk and achieve performance goals. Traditional ways of sampling won't work for the sprawling, multi-trillion dollar COVID-19 Recovery phase.
  • Logistics accounting: Jerry-rigged supply chains for emergency resources will now have to be quantified and recorded against budgets. The government will face two options: It can either write off losses it cannot account for, or it can apply records management, e-discovery and robotics tools to quantify spending by funding source. Twenty years ago, it would have been impossible to pull together the information needed to understand this history. This is important for the government to better manage its response to the next crisis – as well answering congressional inquiries that will inevitably follow for years to come.
  • Financial and performance management required under OMB M-20-21: Aging financial management systems and longstanding system interface issues will make it difficult to reconcile expenditures and obligations related to coronavirus. A look at the last couple years' financial audits show gaps in controls and systems capabilities. To manage trillions of dollars of stimulus and public health spending, agencies will need extensive investment in open application programming interfaces, robotics and AI or overhaul their modern financial systems.
  • Home-based federal workforce: Government cannot go back to an operating model based on 25% of people teleworking on any day. I was once told that to understand how government can best leverage technology requires understanding information flows in daily operations. People, processes and technology will have to reflect a virtual workforce, requiring workflows shifting from documents and consensus to fact-based decision-making and accountability for results. Government will need to deploy a tiered digital architecture to untether people from their desks, leveraging cloud and virtualization techniques with a mixture of open standards, APIs and chunking of databases and legacy code into interoperable modules.

So what makes this the most challenging time for CIOs? The biggest horror stories are already baked into program offices that resisted help from the CIO or where the CIO organization was unable to fix systems needed for the COVID-19 response. If not already a partner in the Response phase, it will be very difficult for the CIO team to be the source of digital transformation needed in the Recovery phase. In the past, agency leaders replaced their IT leadership team and contractors.

We face difficult times ahead, with challenges at a scale that few, if any of us, have encountered in our lives. And ready or not, we're going to need IT modernization with an urgency agencies had not experienced before.

About the Author

Mark Forman is vice president of digital government strategy at SAIC.

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