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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

Mission readiness for civilian -- not just defense -- agencies

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an eye-opener for federal agencies when it comes to being mission ready. Not only have agency leaders worked to fulfill their missions for the nation at-large during a crisis, but they have also needed to address the significant requirements of taking care of their own people, facilities and resources given the shift to remote work. Some agencies have had to ramp up quickly and expand services, while others have had to scale back. The pandemic has served as a crucible, requiring agency leaders to be even more agile, pivoting with changing demands and circumstances. Examples abound across the government, but one in particular features the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services team, which pivoted up to 20% of its talent pool to develop authentication technology for the Payment Protection Program run out of the Small Business Administration.

Given both anticipated and unforeseeable recent events, it’s crucial for all federal agencies to measure, assess and report on their ability to perform required tasks and support missions. We believe this is particularly true for civilian agencies. Mission readiness has traditionally been associated with defense agencies because they are required to report readiness metrics, such as personnel, equipment, supply, training and ordinance as it relates to combat missions. We expect that in the next few years, civilian agencies will increasingly require readiness reporting as well to ensure their organizations have the resources available to meet the mission.

Being mission ready is essential for continued operations or any change in circumstance. Whether it’s steady state, a directional shift or a natural disaster, each comes with its own set of interconnected complexities that affect missions and resource needs. A change in congressional priorities or, given the recent presidential election, in administration, can lead to a dramatic increase or decrease in funding or shift in priorities, interpretations and guiding principles – all of which will demand that agencies quickly rethink how they best allocate resources.

For example, if in addition to managing pre-existing priorities and current COVID-19 mitigation measures aimed at quickly tracking the deployment of personal protective equipment and other needed assets, the Federal Emergency Management Agency were required to quickly respond to a Gulf Coast hurricane, FEMA leaders must know quickly where they will get the necessary resources so the agency can continue to serve its mission on all fronts.   

Agencies looking to achieve greater mission readiness should take three essential steps right now:

1. Establish a standard analytical framework. In our experience across the defense and civilian sectors, we’ve seen that the ability to be mission ready is largely a data challenge. Agencies have traditionally relied on cumbersome, manual and/or ad-hoc processes to assess their readiness. As a result, they often make decisions on “gut” feelings or incomplete and inaccurate data. A standard analytic framework helps structure data so agencies can assess mission readiness in a more consistent, repeatable way and allows them to use the data to assess mission-related trade-offs and risks. Agencies need an analytic capability that gathers, analyzes and visualizes readiness data (e.g., assets, personnel, training, budget) so leaders can make informed decisions, reduce operational risk and focus on achieving greater efficiencies, effectiveness and better performance when rapid and defensible decision-making is needed. For example, the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery is using a dynamic sourcing framework that is designed to reduce days and weeks’ worth of work into hours and help maximize the quality of health care delivered, through the rigorous identification and analysis of risks and trade-offs. This approach can make all the difference when hospital beds are limited and a surge in resources may be needed to help support COVID-19 cases in port cities across the country.

2. Operationalize data across agencies. Data interoperability and real-time access across agencies, private-sector partners and open-data sources are critical to make informed decisions on how these different groups can share resources and information to serve a common mission, particularly during an emergency. During the COVID-19 pandemic, FEMA, the White House Coronavirus Task Force, the Department of Health and Human Services, other federal agencies, state, local, tribal and territorial governments and the private sector have all manually coordinated efforts to execute a response, which can be a time- and resource-intensive task. Operationalizing data for mission readiness requires the ability to automate data linkages between systems, processes and people that enable leaders to assess readiness at a specific directorate level, as well as assess across organizations for a collaborative response.

3. Leverage modeling and simulation. Agencies should use modeling and simulation to assess trade-offs, model what-if scenarios and forecast risk on mission outcomes to be better prepared for different situations. For example, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, agencies had to quickly assess what PPE inventory existed and who needed it most based on mission criticality. The ability to run models and simulations with this data helps leaders assess the impacts of moving PPE or other needed resources up or down on their priorities lists to better understand the risks that changes might present to other missions. For the situation requiring the provision of PPE to those on the front lines, effective modeling and simulation data could ultimately be the tool needed to justify more resources in the long run.

The pandemic has necessitated and accelerated the need for civilian and defense agencies to assess their ability to be mission ready. Readiness is a continuous process -- real world events evolve quickly. It is essential to feed data and lessons learned back into an organization’s readiness framework so that agency leaders can continuously plan for and respond to evolving situations. While agencies cannot plan for every unexpected scenario, they can create a culture of readiness and build inherent flexibility into plans and processes, empowering them to achieve their desired mission outcomes regardless of the circumstances.

About the Author

Nicole Kurtz is a principal with Booz Allen, working in its Justice, Homeland Security, and Transportation business.

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