President Trump signed the CARES Act on March 27, authorizing more than $2 trillion to combat the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the economic impact on Americans.

President Trump signed the CARES Act on March 27, authorizing more than $2 trillion to combat the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the economic impact on Americans. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

There’s a Playbook for Implementing the CARES Act; Agencies Need to Follow It

We are going to see billions of dollars in new contract spending for both surge and ongoing requirements.

Some 15 years ago, the Professional Services Council and the Army Materiel Command teamed up on a joint “lessons learned” exercise focused on contracting issues that arose during the first phases of the Iraq war. As we prepared to brief the report to senior Pentagon officials, the commander of AMC suggested to me that we change the title. “Instead of Lessons Learned,” he said, “We should call it Lessons Observed. After all, we haven’t learned a damn thing.” 

With the passage of the CARES Act, we are again on the precipice of a massive federal initiative, the largest of its kind ever. Of the $2 trillion called for under the law, agencies will spend billions of dollars on new federal contracts for both ongoing and surge activities. And looking back, many past lessons remain highly relevant. While imperfect analogies, the early days of the Iraq conflict, along with the days following Hurricane Katrina, the 2009 recovery and stimulus, and more, share a number of common traits and do offer some lessons worth keeping front of mind.

First, to paraphrase a military adage, we need to fight as we plan and plan as we fight. As agencies come to grips with their specific roles in the execution of the CARES Act mission, the centrality of industry partnerships are eminently clear. Engaging industry partners from the beginning, sharing objectives and tapping their creativity and expertise is not just smart management; it’s also essential to finding the best, most efficacious solutions. 

How can we best surge capacity to meet the extraordinary demands numerous agencies will face? What is the best combination of people and technology available to meet any of the many disparate missions at hand? To what extent does the current crisis provide a path toward longer term innovation that can have hugely beneficial long-term effect? These questions can’t be answered in a vacuum. If there was ever a time for government to model a collaborative approach—something often discussed but rarely put into practice—this is it. 

Second, urgency and emergency are not synonymous. In the cases of both Iraq and Katrina, the transitions from the initial emergency phase to sustainment were uneven at best and were central to many of the controversies that ensued. The CARES Act will likewise create a dizzying mix of immediate and mid-to-longer term actions—all of which are urgent, not all of which are “emergencies.” It’s up to agencies, and contractors, to individually and together carefully assess how and where emergency contracting authorities are—or are not—appropriate.

Expectations will be high and pressures will be great. “Success” for one community may well be measured by spending velocity—getting the money out there. But for others, and for taxpayers and those who will conduct the necessary after-the-fact reviews, success will be measured by whether the money was spent smartly and delivered actual outcomes. 

Third, managing these dichotomous expectations will largely fall to the frontline workforce. But they can’t do it alone. At no time does leadership matter more than in times of crisis and the best provide their teams a sturdy layer of risk absorption. The risk aversion that is evident in so many areas of government is largely a consequence of a workforce that simply isn’t confident that, when things go wrong, as they inevitably do, they will be supported and protected by their leadership. 

Implementing the CARES Act will require that the government’s acquisition and mission workforces, and their industry partners, be willing to take responsible risk; engage in and act on innovative strategies; seek new solutions; move out quickly and surely; and frequently challenge the expectations or demands of more senior officials in the administration or congress. There will be enormous pressure on everyone to deliver—pressure that will only be exacerbated by the upcoming elections. And deliver they will. But they’ll also need uncommon levels of clearly articulated and actualized leadership support of the kind we’ve not seen nearly enough of in the past.

Finally, early insight facilitates better oversight. Make no mistake about it. Within a year, and for a long while after, we are going to be treated to a series of inspector general investigations and reports, GAO studies, and congressional hearings assessing the government’s performance in executing the CARES Act. Indeed, comprehensive oversight is to be expected and is entirely appropriate. But we shouldn’t wait for after-action reports. The time to align agency plans with oversight community expectations is now. Agencies should explicitly seek to engage the various components of the oversight community in their planning—how they are going to address the immediate demands of the crisis; what their strategies are for the longer term; how and where sole sourcing work is called for; how they are going to use “limited competition” rather than full and open; what contract types or contract vehicles they plan to use, etc. Effective oversight requires depth and understanding of circumstances at the moment; and it’s up to those charged to engage all stakeholders from the start. It’s been done before (ask Greg Rothwell, the Homeland Security procurement executive during Katrina). It needs to be done again. Across the board.

There is a playbook for all of this, several of them in fact. Paying attention to those playbooks and capitalizing on core and common lessons learned is one important way to optimize our national response to the current crisis.  Things will go wrong, but the frequency and severity of problems can be constrained, and the game of recriminations that always seems so popular in the aftermath of a crisis will be limited, if we learn from rather than simply observe past experience.