What if COVID-19 teaches us nothing?

Every crisis is supposed to be a great teachable moment and COVID-19 has exposed cracks in multiple areas that need to be addressed. But what if we don't change?

There is little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on the country and our culture with the government contracting industry not being immune to that.

Prevailing wisdom says large portions of the workforce will stay home and work remotely. This will drive agencies to improve their IT infrastructure and hasten the drive to cloud environments and everything-as-a-service.

We’ll have less face-to-face interaction so there will be a need for beefed up private networks and broadband connections everywhere. Security requirements and solutions will tighten as the points of exposure have exponentially. The cascade of tech opportunities will go on and on.

How we work and how we manage work will change. That’s what most of everyone, including myself is saying.

But what if it doesn’t change? What if a year from now, we have a vaccine and we have effective treatments? Will things swing back? Will agencies demand face time for both employees and contractors? Will old management habits return?

Every crisis is a supposed to be a great teachable moment. COVID-19 has exposed cracks in our educational system, health care, family support, and disaster recovery systems.

But will we learn the lessons? Can we afford to fix the cracks? Can we afford not to?

We have trillions of dollars going out as part of various stimulus programs. How will this be paid for? Will that bring a wave of austerity, which will translate into cuts to programs near and dear across the political spectrum.

The debt being piled on is so great that we likely won’t be able to grow our way out of it. In fact, recent history has shown our debt has grown even while the economy has been growing and that isn’t supposed to happen.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, we saw tremendous change across the government. First the Transportation Security Administration was stood up, then the Homeland Security Department was created. Budgets soared and that’s not even considering the cost of going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The death toll attributed to the coronavirus in the United States stands at nearly 90,000 -- a death toll far greater than those lost in the terrorist attacks and the U.S. soldiers, sailors and Marines killed in two wars.

How will Congress and the White House react? Will they see this pandemic as a one-off and move on?

I wish I knew the answers, but I worry that we won’t change enough. That we won’t invest in the right places or even have the right strategic debates to figure out where to invest. It seems we love to argue these days but we have lost our ability to move forward.

And of course, we might not have the resources to invest even if we figure out what to do.

Many people have told me that austerity is the great driver of change. Despite cuts, agencies will still have their mission and likely agencies such as the Health and Human Services Department will carry a greater burden. We need a better system for testing and treatment, whether it is COVID-19 or some other contagious disease. We need to understand where we are vulnerable.

A bigger mission with fewer resources will force them to be creative, so perhaps we’ll see greater adoption of cutting edge technologies that will drive efficiency and effectiveness. That’s the sales pitch anyway.

But still I wonder and worry. Perhaps the nine-plus weeks of quarantine have me feeling anxious and a little cynical. I’m generally an optimist so I believe we’ll move in the right direction. It just won’t be easy or smooth. 

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