Observations from US Federal Agencies’ Responses to COVID-19
The rapid evolution of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic sent shock waves throughout the American workforce. This unprecedented health crisis required swift responses from organizations nationwide, and the U.S. federal government was no exception. As the crisis unfolded, federal agencies scrambled to determine alternative work solutions and to continue unclassified operations in a remote environment. Many government organizations were ill-equipped and unprepared, with few to no contingency plans established to enable operations outside a government facility.
This paper examines key themes that played a pivotal role in the response of various federal agencies to COVID-19. Our team illustrates examples from our observations of various intelligence community (IC) agencies’ COVID-19 responses and open-source research. Our key themes focus on leadership, telework preparedness, communications, and systems and processes. Through examination of these themes, federal agencies can implement processes to acclimate and strengthen their workforce and maximize operational productivity during future crises.
Effective Leadership Makes a Difference
Crisis situations test federal agencies, and often highlight areas for improvement across multiple dimensions. Leadership capabilities foreshadow and empower an organization to navigate uncharted waters of so-called black swan events. Our observations revealed that federal agencies with top officials exhibiting transformational leadership made a significant positive difference in their organization’s response to COVID-19. Transformational leadership is a leadership philosophy model where leaders emphasize team development by identifying desired change and guiding their team through the change using inspiration and collaboration.
The transformational leadership model enables timely and efficient organizational decision-making during a crisis and the return of a more adept and resilient workforce once the crisis is over. Supervisors who cultivate a work environment that enhances job performance, instills a sense of trust, and aptly aligns talent are positioned to successfully respond to emergency situations. COVID-19 exposed the challenges leaders face in operating in an unknown environment. Leaders who were proactive, agile, and able to delegate excelled in this novel environment.
Forward-leaning leaders were more inclusive earlier in the COVID-19 crisis. We witnessed this in one federal agency where top leaders quickly engaged with subject matter experts (SMEs) to develop their workforce strategy to adapt to pandemic challenges. These leaders openly accepted feedback on performance, adapted business operations, and broadly communicated changes to their workforce in this quickly evolving environment. One federal agency director hosted unclassified weekly town halls to routinely address the workforce and executed an agency-wide COVID-19 recovery plan. The broader IC applauded this director’s focus on preparedness and inclusivity.
The art of delegation—putting skilled leaders in charge and supporting them—empowers the leaders to execute on their judgment. The right leaders are essential at every level of management, especially during a crisis. Leader micromanaging within one federal agency directly hindered that agency’s response to COVID-19 and its transition to alternative operations. Some lower-level leaders thus struggled to manage, inspire, and trust employees in an offsite work environment that prevented physical contact. COVID-19 illuminated federal agencies’ mutual challenge to combat the crisis while empowering their employees to execute business operations without frequent manager interference.
Adapting Infrastructure Supports Telework and Alternative Operations
COVID-19 created unique challenges for federal agencies that frequently worked with classified information and primarily operated out of sensitive compartmented information facilities (SCIFs). Health concerns and subsequent in-office manpower reductions necessitated that these organizations reimagine business operations. The chief information officer (CIO) of one federal agency played a pivotal role in facilitating a remote work environment. This CIO advanced an initiative to expand the organization’s unclassified infrastructure and deployed a variety of new capabilities.
Through the CIO’s leadership, this federal agency expanded its unclassified network’s bandwidth and server capacity to enable more remote-access users. Consequently, the average number of daily user sessions increased by over 2,000%. The CIO also implemented chat and videoconferencing tools on the agency’s unclassified network to provide personnel with a similar collaboration experience as on its classified network. In addition, the CIO implemented an initial deployment of hundreds of laptops to agency employees to enable seamless remote access. Individual agency offices augmented these efforts by purchasing a large amount of Common Access Card readers so employees could access the unclassified network from home.
In one federal agency, many members of the workforce were deemed nonessential at the onset of COVID-19 and subsequently did not enter the building for several months. As a result, their account passwords expired. Upon partial reconstitution of the workforce, this agency launched a surge initiative to provide immediate support to returning personnel and expedite their access to the classified network. This allowed users to quickly come back online upon returning to agency facilities.
Communications Drive Crisis Response
During COVID-19’s spread across the U.S., communications proved to be a key element of crisis response. In early March 2020 as potential state-mandated shutdowns were looming, some federal agencies found themselves unprepared to respond to a nationwide crisis that was different than previous U.S. government shutdowns. This lack of preparation directly impacted their messaging and guidance to the workforce, as they were unsure of what and how often to communicate. In some cases, this void of a pre-existing, organization-wide crisis communications strategy caused lower-level office leadership to push out messaging with conflicting guidance or to remain silent. These responses did not fully address nor assuage the workforce’s fear, anxiety, and uncertainty.
One federal agency abruptly sent most of its staff home to work, giving notice of 48 hours or less. For many, teleworking was a novel experience. In one federal agency office surveyed, over 90% of participants had never worked from home prior to COVID-19. Some individuals lacked initial connectivity to their agency’s unclassified network or even a list of key agency phone numbers. Once these personnel were able to log in and telework from their agency’s unclassified network, many remained confused over revised work roles, timesheet guidance, proper communications methods, and rules for coming onsite. Their home organization has since remedied and addressed many of these issues and concerns, but they did cause initial confusion for employees.
Our observations also highlighted that some federal agency employees lacked the proper resources to conduct telework. These employees lacked a dedicated work laptop or home computer and stable internet access; some of them had to share home workstations with their school-age children. This resource disparity created communications barriers and lost time across the workforce.
Tested and Ready Systems and Processes Matter
At the onset of COVID-19, various federal agencies did not have the right capabilities, processes, or systems in place to properly respond to the pandemic. Some federal agencies had pre-existing pandemic-specific continuity plans but these were rarely rehearsed, as the threat of a pandemic seemed unlikely. Other federal agencies found their business continuity and pandemic response strategies to be insufficient and lacking the proper resources when enacted. One federal agency’s medical and disaster preparation staff maintained an existing pandemic response plan that was later found to be inadequate. This plan did not facilitate the creation of policies and produce actionable tasks the organization needed to support its workforce and navigate the pandemic.
One federal government agency’s business continuity plans focused on alternative locations to continue business operations and enable mission success. This agency did not consider employee homes to be alternative work locations and thus did not adequately plan contingency communications. This issue was particularly difficult for organizations accustomed to primarily operating out of SCIFs, even when working with unclassified information. We also observed that one federal agency had to create governance structures and policies on the fly to enable continued operations in a telework-heavy environment during COVID-19. Though this agency was eventually able to create strategies and policies to support its workforce, its lack of needed systems and processes resulted in delayed action, which ultimately degraded its ability to execute its mission.
Our team recommends that US federal agencies take the following actions to address issues caused and elevated by COVID-19:
- Select strong leaders for key positions. Having the right leader in place at the onset of a crisis is critical. Leaders do not have to be SMEs to lead an office, but they must have strong interpersonal skills and be comfortable trusting and directing their workforce. Strong leaders are essential at every level of management and should be replaced if they lack the competence and agility to act. Leaders who do not effectively delegate tasks and empower their subordinates will significantly slow their organization’s crisis response.
- Anticipate the next disaster. Leaders should receive training in the art of foresight to aid them in anticipating and proactively countering threats. An organization’s ability to anticipate and perceive real-time obstacles empowers it to be on the offensive. As part of this preparation, federal agencies must be able to observe global trends and take necessary precautions to prepare for the next disaster.
- Develop an organizational culture for adaptability. Organizations must foster a climate of agility and innovation to adapt to new operating environments. Leaders must be allowed agility to make changes as necessary, and it is their responsibility to ensure their workforce tolerates and even embraces such changes. Creating new long-term telework plans and recording the phased re-entry approach of one’s organization is not enough to prepare for the next crisis. An organization must develop plans with adaptation in mind.
- Regularly exercise telework. Many federal agencies are implementing plans to routinely practice telework options. Federal agencies should conduct routine monthly, if not weekly, remote log-ins to their unclassified networks and periodically conduct staff meetings via videoconferencing tools. This practice helps identify connectivity issues before the onset of the next crisis.
- Practice effective knowledge management. Organizations must store files and important documents on the appropriate domain, based on their classification. Randomly storing unclassified documents on the classified domain limits the ability of employees to work effectively while operating in a remote environment. Access to information is paramount to telework success.
- Assess risks with remote working. Organizations should complete vulnerability assessments to identify and mitigate network and infrastructure security risks associated with employees working remotely. Telework activities should be included in risk management to avoid potential gaps in organizations’ crisis preparation and continuity of operations plans.
- Update and disseminate crisis communications plans. As part of crisis preparations and planning, federal agencies should ensure that they have an updated crisis communications plan ready to deploy. This plan is critical to mitigating organization-wide confusion during a crisis and ensuring that the mission is executed with continued confidence from internal and external stakeholders.
- Communicate early and often. Robust, consistent communications from all levels of leadership with an organization’s workforce ensures continued confidence and trust. In one federal agency office surveyed, 100% of participants were satisfied with how their office leadership handled the transition to telework and alternate operations. Many cited that their first-line managers were transparent and proactive in their communications, which reduced confusion.
- Check your communications channels. Federal agencies must continue to be vigilant about what information is shared and communicated through unclassified networks and across open-source platforms. When one federal agency transitioned to a telework-heavy posture, many employees were initially confused over when to use different communications platforms and what unclassified information they could discuss. To mitigate potential data leaks, federal agencies should proactively identify and broadcast to their workforce communications standards and contingencies for collaborating offsite.
The Guidehouse Advantage
U.S. federal agencies should consider developing organizational strategies that promote adaptability and enable smooth transitions to alternative working environments. Flexibility is critical for continued mission success, open communications, and establishing trust among the workforce. The highlighted observations in this white paper provide insights into the effectiveness of the federal government’s response to COVID-19. Guidehouse’s experts working for clients across the IC, Department of Defense, and other branches of the government have the experience, skills, and tools to help organizations navigate this sustained crisis and execute solutions to become more resilient.
Guidehouse is a leader in providing expert problem analysis, strategy development, and solution implementation across the federal government. Our professionals come from careers in industry, government, and academia with a wide range of professional experience to include program management, business operations, intelligence operations and analysis, military operations, research, supply chain security, law and financial services, data science, corporate communications, cybersecurity and information protection, and investigations. Guidehouse consultants working for local, state, and federal government clients frequently benefit from Guidehouse commercial sector colleagues’ private industry knowledge supporting Fortune 500 companies, large healthcare networks, and financial institutions—all of which are grappling with the realities of the coronavirus pandemic.
Guidehouse is here, ready to help. We can leverage our expertise and resources to better prepare your organization for the future and the next crisis.
For additional information, please contact:
Nicole Gibson, Partner, National Security Segment
Ingrid Peterson, Director, National Security Segment
Stacie Boyle, Senior Consultant, National Security Segment
Victoria Hall, Consultant, National Security Segment
Marco Kilongkilong, Senior Consultant, National Security Segment
Elyse Ping Medvigy, Senior Consultant, National Security Segment
Jeff Weinhofer, Senior Consultant, National Security Segment