Pandemic Preparedness and Senior Officials

Pandemic Preparedness and Senior Officials

By Kyle B. Olson

The Olson Group 

There is a notion that the current administration had never considered the possibility of a pandemic until COVID-19 exploded in the US. That is not true. What is far more likely is that the current administration, much like its predecessors, accepted the possibility but refused to consider the consequences seriously. 

There have been reports of a Federal pandemic exercise last year, Crimson Contagion, about a lethal influenza-like virus sweeping from Asia to the rest of the world. It has been suggested that senior Administration officials failed to learn and apply the lessons from that exercise. Still, my experience with Federal exercises leads me to believe three things about that exercise:

  1. The senior leaders who most needed to be involved – especially those closest to the President – probably didn’t actually take part in the exercise.
  2. The pandemic scenario was most likely dumbed down to ensure that the upper managers taking part didn’t have to wrestle with painful or complex decisions (e.g., stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions, etc.) and their consequences.
  3. Managing the nation’s recovery from the pandemic and the associated economic devastation was almost certainly NOT part of the exercise. 

The reason this government’s key leaders didn’t apply the insights they gained from that exercise is that, in all likelihood, they either weren’t there, weren’t addressing the right issues, or never even got to the toughest parts of the problem. Wrong people, wrong questions, wrong focus.

Although I was not involved in Crimson Contagion, I have helped develop and conduct similar exercises for every administration since George W. Bush. Typically, senior or “National Level” exercises are the product of large planning committees, with representatives from the White House (usually the National Security Council), the various Departments and agencies that will be taking part in the play, and contractors working for the sponsoring office. The interagency committee representatives tend to be very smart public servants who have been assigned to the project with an over-riding mission: don’t let their bosses look bad.  

Senior leaders are almost always too busy to participate in even the highest level exercises, which means key decision-makers usually do not benefit from playing out these scenarios. Cabinet members delegate to deputies, deputies delegated to assistants, and assistants show up unprepared with two or three senior career bureaucrats in tow to spoon-feed the answers to questions received in advance. Because you don’t want to surprise anyone.

During planning, the interagency committee will almost always soften the exercise scenario, removing sharp edges to protect their organizations. Mid-level agency representatives reflexively scrub away scenario elements that could put their bosses on the spot. An aggressive storyline with a highly lethal virus sweeping across the world and killing millions of Americans will typically be trimmed down and de-natured to a bad stomach bug that barely makes it into the US because of early detection and timely intervention by government authorities. The alternative would be to cast shade on the CDC’s surveillance efforts and DHS’s processing of foreign visitors, and result in a large number of hospitalizations and fatalities that would be a major challenge for the nation’s healthcare providers. We might even run short of PPE! Unemployed folks forced to stay at home might run out of money!  

Disaster exercises usually don’t last long enough to address the sticky issues and dreary, extended timeframes of recovery. Exercises are often written around a few keys, almost scripted actions early on in the unfolding event that result in wins or (very rarely) losses for the home team. As noted, players (the wrong players) pretty much know what’s coming, they usually know what is expected of them, and they almost always know when the exercise is going to end. Playing out the re-building of an economy or identifying the need for plans to allow schools and businesses to open takes a lot of time, and is almost always deferred in the interest of time. Since things are usually assumed to “return to normal” after the storm passes, everyone shakes hands and declares victory.

The lack of a plan, due to a lack of thinking about the challenge and the actions needed to meet it, recurs too often in a democracy that focuses on the latest poll and the next election. A good exercise, which is a structured opportunity to consider extremes, can help direct attention to big threats.  

But too often, it is a case of Wrong people, wrong questions, wrong focus.

Pandemic Exercises The Olson Group 

The Olson Group, Ltd. (OGL) leads the emergency management and homeland security industry in providing innovative and responsive planning, training, and exercise services to state and local government, education, healthcare providers, and industry.