In 2019, the Global Health Index evaluated the epidemic preparedness and response capabilities of 195 countries and ranked the United States as number one. Yet as of today, with nearly four million confirmed Covid cases and over 143 thousand deaths, the United States leads the world in a very different way.
We assessed the risks, both the likelihood and potential severity of a pandemic. We did extensive planning for the structures, direction, and resources needed for preparedness. And we repeatedly tested the plans, confirming strengths and identifying weaknesses.
What was missing? Commitment. And that’s worth exploring, not as a political blame-game, but as an object lesson for the nuances of how what appears to be carefully planned and solidly on track can go off the rails for lack of commitment, with disastrous results.
Shifting Priorities: Beginning in 2017, the new administration’s priorities shifted significantly from its predecessors’, with decreases in international cooperation and large cuts in funding for international programs. For example, in 2018, impending funding cuts resulted in the CDC planning to downsize its global health security initiative in 39 of 49 countries. Amidst negotiations and posturing for a trade deal, the United States pulled back on its health presence in China, with the CDC’s headcount of public health professionals on site in China cut from 47 in 2017 down to 14 in early 2020, and both the National Science Foundation and USAID closing their Beijing offices. And after a decade of global work in identifying emerging zoonotic threats, USAID’s PREDICT program was defunded in 2019.
Meanwhile, the Strategic National Stockpile, due to a decade of funding limitations, did not replenish its stock of N95 masks after the 2009 H1N1 influenza epidemic, instead using its limited funding on supplies of medications and equipment for other disaster scenarios. Notably, in April 2020 the Stockpile’s website was edited, narrowing the Stockpile’s stated purpose from “[The] Strategic National Stockpile is the nation’s largest supply of life-saving pharmaceuticals and medical supplies for use in a public health emergency severe enough to cause local supplies to run out…” to “The Strategic National Stockpile’s role is to supplement state and local supplies during public health emergencies…. [The supplies] contained in the stockpile can be used as a short-term stopgap buffer when the immediate supply of adequate amounts of these materials may not be immediately available.”
Turnover & Reorganization: In January 2017, during the U.S. presidential transition, outgoing homeland security officials provided to the incoming national security team a detailed three hour briefing exercise on a global pandemic scenario, demonstrating the planning in place and providing specific, key takeaways. By January 2020, most of the new administration’s key personnel who attended the transition briefing had left or been fired.
In 2018 the White House’s Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, our “command-center” for pandemic response, was disbanded in a streamlining and downsizing of the National Security Council. Remaining pandemic professionals were consolidated into an NSC directorate dealing with arms control and nonproliferation, weapons of mass destruction terrorism, and global health and biodefense. Ron Klain, who led the Ebola response in 2014-2015, compared these moves to a city terminating its fire chief and folding the remaining firefighters into the police force. “The next time you have a fire, they will send a police car with a couple of firefighters in the back.”
Tone at the Top: Remember the notion of message-discipline, of persistent, clear, and consistent conduct and messaging aligned with an important policy position? Much has been said about the President’s statements downplaying the risks of Covid-19 before mid-March. And since then, our President’s public health messaging has continued to contradict pandemic response imperatives, such as on the legitimacy of state stay-at-home orders, on following the advice of public health officials, on the usefulness of testing, and on the need to wear masks. Setting aside the scrum of conflicting political interests, it seems clear that this mixed messaging has been problematic for a national pandemic response that turns upon motivating trust and compliant behavior by the general public.
The Lesson for Information Governance?
Just as with pandemic response preparedness, success for organizations in governing their information risks and opportunities requires more than assessing risks, planning, and testing. Ongoing commitment is essential. And the same obstacles discussed above can derail an organization’s commitment to Information Governance:
Shifting Priorities: There are always competing priorities within organizations, and it is tempting to lose focus on governing information, especially if all seems like smooth sailing in the moment. But like pandemic preparedness, the point of managing information is to stay ahead of the curve, so that when data-related risks become today’s reality, the organization is prepared. Commitment to IG in the face of competing priorities requires continually making the case for the value of Information Governance, and how it advances the strategic objectives of the organization.
Turnover & Reorganization: Healthy organizations are dynamic, not static – people come and go, and org charts are never set in stone. For an IG program to succeed over the long haul, the structures, processes, and workflows must be well-documented and kept up to date, so that the baton can be passed at any time. Those responsible for the Information Governance program must be prepared to effectively orient those in new management roles to the ways and means of IG in the organization, especially on how effective IG will help the new person better achieve their own goals for their department or function. And it is prudent to bake into the program a process for regular, periodic actions and reviews. Inertia (the kind that keeps forward motion unchanged) is a powerful counterweight to organizational change. Such program elements as establishing periodic audits or policy and program reviews, periodic legal validations of policies and retention schedules, and periodic management reporting on IG topics can create the kind of beneficial inertia that keeps things moving onward in the right direction.
Tone at the Top: Effective Information Governance requires cooperative and compliant behavior by the organization’s workforce. The reality is that organizational culture eats program initiatives for breakfast, and the most effective, perhaps only, way to influence organizational culture is through executive leadership providing a consistent message, with consistent conduct. The point here is that to secure such tone at the top, those responsible for the organization’s IG program must not wait for executive management to come to them. Instead, as noted above, IG program objectives must be made to align with the fundamental strategic objectives of executive management. And executive sponsorship of the effort must be found, fostered, and carefully tended.
Hindsight is 20/20, but it seems clear that the U.S. actually unwound many elements of our pandemic preparedness that were in place before 2020, and that turnover and erratic tone at the top have slowed and stymied our pandemic response, risking it being too little, to late. The lesson for Information Governance is that commitment is the single most essential element for success. And just as a virus will not magically disappear, organizational commitment will not magically appear. So, for those responsible for Information Governance at the organization, the question becomes: What have I put in place, and what am I doing today and tomorrow, to ensure continuing commitment to our IG program?