Mark Gerencser, chairman of Business Executives for National Security (BENS) and 2021 Wash100 Award recipient, and Gen. Joseph Votel, president and chief executive officer of BENS, recently spoke with ExecutiveBiz on the Commission on the National Response Enterprise: A Call to Action” report to identify ways to improve national resilience in responding to sustained, nation-wide emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic.
“BENS is a national nonprofit made up of business executives from across the country, largely outside of the defense and space industry, who bring their business expertise, insights, lessons learned and best practices to address national security challenges for our government partners,” Votel noted.
ExecutiveBiz: Congratulations on the release of the “Commission on the National Response Enterprise: A Call to Action” report. What was the report’s genesis for you both, and what knowledge were you hoping to share?
Gen. Joseph Votel: The genesis of the Commission was the pandemic and our national response to it. Like everyone else, our BENS members were deeply affected by the pandemic and paying very close attention to the federal response.
We did some early, short-term response work for Government partners but strongly suspected something much more significant to be examined and resolved with our overall response.
We started our investigative work by bringing BENS members together to talk about what we were seeing. Our initial focus, like many, was on the healthcare aspects of the crisis.
We discovered quickly, however, that the pandemic was exposing significant vulnerabilities in our national emergency response system, especially with supplies, surge capacity, communications, and coordinated response between different sectors and levels of government. We knew there was something much more significant to be addressed.
What stood out to all was the sustained and widespread nature of this crisis, unlike shorter duration and regionally focused events like hurricanes or floods. Approaches to these are well developed and mostly reflexive.
An emergency that affected the whole nation simultaneously laid bare the weaknesses in our overall system. As a result, we decided to focus our effort on our national response to sustained, widespread emergencies. This was the origin of the Commission.
Our initial problem statement was to determine a better model for public, private, and civil collaboration, cooperation, and communication during a sustained national emergency.
BENS is not a “think tank”; it is a “do tank.” We want to make real change that has a positive impact. Our focus was not on just writing a report — it is really on identifying implementable recommendations.
The most important part of the Commission’s work is what we are doing right now – working with our partners in the Administration, Congress, the private sector, and other stakeholders to turn our recommendations into action.
Mark Gerencser: “In a book that I co-authored years ago, I focused on big problems that were hard to solve. Generally, those problems are of a nature where one has to engage several entities to address.
As General Votel undertook a series of phone calls with BENS’ members, regarding surge, supplies and various topics around the pandemic, it occurred to me that in order to address and analyze this, we need to bring together a broad group of leaders and experts.
We decided to catalyze a Commission to drive towards a solution. This is not just about pandemics, it’s about shocks to the nation that are far reaching and occur for prolonged durations, such as sustained cyber-attack on a critical infrastructure.
It could be other things such as a physical attack on our power grid, a drought, a geo-magnetic storm or an electromagnetic pulse attack. There are five aspects of BENS enabled us to take on this challenge:
This undertaking is part of BENS’ DNA. We are executives from businesses. In years past, businesses could stand alone or they were vertically integrated and hence could operate independently by themselves; but today, businesses are highly networked.
We rely on supply chains and distribution channels we don’t control, meaning we don’t completely control our own destiny. Business leaders today are well-versed and well-skilled in collaborating with external entities of their extended enterprises to drive their business operations and success.
Second, we are a trusted convener of people, government and business, as well as the NGO space. We’re uniquely situated to be the convener to unite a broad group of diverse organizations.
Third, this was urgent and we operate at business speed. We established, convened, analyzed and completed our Call to Action report in 90 days. Most things in Washington take much longer.
The fourth reason is that it is in line with our strategy. We are a hybrid organization which conducts transactional undertakings based on our government partners’ needs, but we also conduct thought leadership activities that transcend any one partner.
In the case of COVID-19, we decided to be the thought leader to drive solutions, even though we didn’t have a specific customer requesting it.
The fifth reason is that we are a ‘do tank.’ We’re really unique in this space. We don’t want to just write a report, and accordingly, the report is not the end game. We want to enact the change that’s needed and drive those solutions.”
ExecutiveBiz: Can you talk about the research and team effort behind the development of the report? Why is BENS qualified to produce a report like this?
Gen. Joseph Votel: In informing the Commission, we reached out to heavy hitters in the public, private, and civil sectors who could speak authoritatively about the problems and the solutions.
Eventually, 33 Commissioners comprised a “steering group” that guided the efforts of five working groups. BENS members augmented by outside experts led these five groups. They focused on the supply chain, surge capacity, human resources, digital infrastructure, and roles and responsibilities.
The workgroups conducted research, gathered data, and conducted nearly 200 interviews in a 90-day sprint. They examined each area in depth, concluded findings, and identified specific recommendations for the Commissioners to consider. In the end — the overall Commission made three significant findings and identified 11 concrete recommendations.
We also used an advisory group of senior BENS Directors who brought their experience and expertise to the problem and helped Mark and me avoid overlooking critical areas in our findings and, more importantly, our implementation plan. It was an impressive team effort.
Mark Gerencser: “If you take a look at the list of commissioners, we had seven different industries represented. Within the government, we’ve had people at the cabinet level, people who were advisors to Presidents, senators, agency heads and two different FEMA administrators.
On the civil side, we had philanthropic organizations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, hospital & healthcare administrators, and BENS itself. This diverse group enabled us to develop solutions to a vast and complex problem. In order to solve such challenges, you truly have to understand the entire problem. If you only look at it from one perspective, you don’t see the whole problem, and any answer would be incomplete.
The power of this group, and of the Commission specifically, was looking at all aspects of the problem, so that we could develop a sustainable solution would really work. The horsepower of our work was driven by the working groups.”
ExecutiveBiz: Why is it so crucial for our nation to improve the lines of communication and collaboration between all branches of government, industry, and all other sectors?
Gen. Joseph Votel: No single sector, no specific government level, has all the resources and all the capabilities to address the problem. We have to bring everyone together to leverage all the help and expertise. This collaboration aspect is so important because if you fail to leverage all resources to get the emergency under control quickly – it will have a compounding effect.
As the pandemic became more prolonged, it did not just affect the health of our citizens. It affected employment, education, commerce, politics, and the social fabric of the country. It created distrust in many areas. Taken all together – it became a severe national security threat.
Mark Gerencser: “If you look at what resilience is, it’s adaptive capacity, which includes how one can shift capacity and share scarce resources. The fact of the matter is, when you engage stakeholders outside of the government, you get more capacity that can be shared and utilized.
You also get more innovation. It changes the horizon of innovation so, for example, businesses can re-tool factory floors, repurpose distribution channels, and alter supply chains. These communications and linkages are critical to providing adaptive capacity.”
ExecutiveBiz: Now that the report is available for all eyes, what will BENS do next to advance its message for collaboration and need to strengthen our nation’s emergency response system?
Mark Gerencser: “We’re in the implementation business. We have a plan to talk to Congress. We’ve already made connections with senators and various committees on the Hill that have regulatory and fiduciary responsibilities over federal agencies and state funding. We need to drive change in three key areas: policy, process and operations.
We’ve already briefed the White House transition team. We have also lined up a number of future sessions to include the national governors association. This is not just a federal issue, it’s a state response issue too, so we need to reach the States. Since BENS also has regional offices, we will leverage our presence across the country and engage State and local organizations, where we have a footprint. It’s going to be both a wide and deep press to communicate what we need to do.”
Gen. Joseph Votel: One of the things we have to change is our mindset. I liken this change to what occurred in the 1980s to address the challenge of services operating more effectively together. Among other things, Congress enacted the Goldwater-Nichols act that essentially legislated “jointness’ which we all know resulted in the most potent, effective, and capable military force in the world.
This is the kind of mindset we will need to address future challenges like this — whether it is another pandemic, a sizable cyber strike on our digital economy, or a significant attack on infrastructure.
We can never allow a half-million Americans to die, our economy to sputter, our schools to indefinitely close again because we could not operate effectively between different levels of government and sectors of our society.
We can make the most significant changes in the immediate wake of national tragedies — not after we forget about them.
Mark Gerencser: “What we have, existing today, are a collection of state and local capabilities that were never designed to interact or operate. The Goldwater-Nichols analogy is perfect because the military services used to operate independently as opposed to jointly. The Goldwater-Nichols Act solved that.
Though I don’t believe the States will have to redesign their systems and their centers like the military had to do with their capabilities. With hybrid cloud technology we can interconnect state and local assets without them having to redesign them. This saves time and money.”
ExecutiveBiz: How do data sharing and data security impact hybrid cloud and collaboration?
Gen. Joseph Votel: As we talked to business leaders, data sharing is a real concern. There is real concern about protecting proprietary information – particularly when companies are trying to be responsive and meet our citizens’ needs in an emergency.
We have to be much more friendly in terms of this. The government can’t think of the private sector as vendors; we have to think of them as partners. We have to approach this in a partnership, not with a vendor/contractor mentality. It’s a subtle change, but it’s a crucial point to recognize. We have to find ways to make it easier for the three sectors to collaborate, coordinate and communicate better and faster in a national emergency – and that mainly includes sharing information.
Mark Gerencser: “The Commission and the report actually does touch on those aspects. This new network needs a zero trust security model. In this instance, one assumes they have been penetrated by an adversary, so you have to make certain internal precautions, such as three-factor authentication, encryption, and anonymizing data.
We also talked about the notion of safe harbor legislation, so we’re not putting companies at risk for sharing needed but sensitive data.
Finally, one of the things we didn’t have with our response to COVID-19 was a common operating picture. That’s critical in any emergency response, especially a national response.”
ExecutiveBiz: What would be the most important lesson that you’d like someone to take away from the report? What can someone expect to learn and where can someone download a copy?
Gen. Joseph Votel: There’s two messages here. The first is that we have to act decisively, now, to mitigate the risk from sustained, large scale crises. We have to take action today to prepare ourselves for the next national crisis. This point is our mantra to Congress and the Administration.
The other important point we talked about in the report is not something that can be mandated or legislated – it is the importance of trust. What you learn in a situation like this is that you cannot surge trust in a time of national emergency. People aren’t just going to turn on the trust button.
Trust has to be developed in advance through planning, rehearsing, long term relationship building, and transparent communication between all levels and sectors. Trust building starts at the very top, but it must extend up and down the response chain and continuously be nurtured and reinforced. Without it, we cannot succeed.
Mark Gerencser: “My bumper sticker for our Commission is that we have to establish a whole national response that engages government, business and society. My message to our readers is come join us; be part of BENS. We have 450 executives from all kinds of industries and our capital is the knowledge of our members.
We are self-funded and provide important services and advice free to our government partners to help solve national security issues. We have great leadership and new ideas. We’re doing big things like this Commission and we’ll do bigger things going forward.”
To read BENS’ full “Commission on the National Response Enterprise: A Call to Action” report, visit the organization’s Select Materials & Publications.