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Interagency cooperation in a pandemic: Kay Floyd explains 'whole of government' approach

  • Headshot photograph of Kay Floyd
    The ultimate test:  Kathryn “Kay” H. Floyd '05, Director of William & Mary's Whole of Government Center of Excellence, is an expert on interagency cooperation and coordination to solve problems. She says COVID-19 is the ultimate test of the “Whole of Government” approach.  File photo
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In recent weeks we've been hearing the term “Whole of Government approach” in press conferences about COVID-19 preparations. For those not working in government, it is a phrase they might never have heard before. We thought we would reach out to an expert right here at William & Mary to learn more: Kathryn “Kay” H. Floyd '05, Director of William & Mary's Whole of Government Center of Excellence. - Ed

Q: Kay, could you explain what “Whole of Government” means?

A: At its essence, “Whole of Government” is interagency cooperation and coordination on a crisis, problem or opportunity, which is often related to national security. In assessing the situation, the lead organization wants to consider which agencies or counterparts have a role—whether primary or supplemental—to play in the myriad of tasks that will follow. Knowing your counterparts prior to the crisis, if possible, is particularly helpful in this context. That way, you have established trust and understanding before entering the operations center or command post. You know and respect each other’s strengths, authorities, and responsibilities.

There is a playbook on how to forward deploy some parts of the organization while having a plan for: continuing regular operations and supplementing the backbench of people who are now on the front lines of emergency response. In very simple terms, you know how to mix and match all the players, including the more obvious ones like the Department of Homeland Security and Department of State, as well as more specialized groups such as victim service providers and childcare specialists.


Q: How does a Whole of Government approach apply to what we’re hearing about COVID-19 preparation and response?

A: COVID-19 is touching every aspect of life across the globe. This is an ultimate test of the “Whole of Government” approach: to prepare for the spread in areas that have had few positive tests as well as cities where hospitals are already overwhelmed. Players on all levels of society are going to need to work together.  

Q: Are we seeing examples of where it’s being done effectively now?

A: There are definitely some good examples we can point to. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is coordinating extremely closely with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Health and Human Services (HHS) so that unified messages with accurate information based on science are reaching the public.

On the local end of the spectrum, you can see counties rapidly aligning their policies with new directives coming out from the Governor, whether in Ohio or Virginia. Following Governor Northam’s Executive Order closing K-12 public schools for the duration of the academic year, Fairfax County Public Schools were ready with their follow-up message in minutes. That requires extensive coordination across multiple levels.

Q:  Could you provide examples of situations where it is underutilized or could have an impact on improving cooperation?

A: We have seen some expected tension as we figure out how best to work together on a pandemic on a scale that the world has not seen since 1918. Improved cooperation between the state and local levels is definitely going to be needed in the weeks and months ahead. This virus does not respect borders between counties and states.

In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio are now operating more in sync though there were some initial points of contention. In other states, there is a disagreement between the Governor and localities about what work should continue.

On March 25, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker emphasized that construction work should continue during the crisis, while Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh issued a stay-home advisory that would include construction. As the virus spreads, governors and mayors need to move fast which requires ever changing policies short of a national shelter-in-place.

Q: Is Whole of Government useful just in logistics or can it be helpful in other areas, such as policymaking, planning and strategizing?

A: Whole of Government needs to infuse all areas of policymaking and implementation. You need a Whole of Government mindset when you first begin to formulate your strategy, to develop operational plans, and to decide the specific tools and tactics that will be used.

At all times, you should be thinking of a very long list of organizations that are uniquely qualified to play their roles or can supplement the role of someone else, and then evaluating how certain organizations fit together on a particular issue. If we could make a recommendation to the nation, it would be that Whole of Government approaches are the rubric for planning, responding, and recovering in all areas.

Q: Is Whole of Government applicable to all levels of government – local, state as well as federal? Agencies as well as defense departments?

A: Yes, all levels! The Whole of Government Center at W&M takes a very broad view of what constitutes national security because so many things affect the stability and well being of our nation, whether the challenge is centered in Hampton Roads or California.

The Whole of Government concept is flexible and malleable to be used at all levels of government and by all agencies. This is also why you see the phrase “Whole of Government” in strategies by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the United States Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), as well as in coverage by the local news agencies reporting on COVID-19.

Q: What is the Whole of Government program at W&M?

A: With support from the Commonwealth of Virginia, W&M is meeting a national demand to provide mid-career public policy professionals and military officers in federal, state, and local agencies practical training on interagency collaboration, complex national security and other public policy problems. The Center also brings together leaders from all levels of government and the military for symposia, discussions, and projects to promote creative, collaborative research and solutions to emerging issues.

Currently we are developing our national security curriculum, including e-learning opportunities, and research partnerships while providing customized non-degree training and education courses for a variety of partners. Unlike other national security programs, W&M invokes the “whole of university” approach to our education, training, and research programs, leveraging partnerships with our Law School, Business School, Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, School of Education, and departments across the Arts & Sciences.

Q: What kinds of collaborations do you envision?

A: All of them! We are currently working with elements of U.S. military to assist with the education of some of their mid-career officers. We look forward to hosting a cyber defense conference in cooperation with NATO in Fall 2020. As we grow this Center of Excellence, we are excited about working with diplomats, economists, global health providers, disaster relief coordinators, and more.

Q: What do you think are misconceptions about Whole of Government and what it can do?

A: The biggest misconception is that a Whole of Government approach requires months or years of planning and coordination. Rather, each organization should embrace a planning, response, and recovery process that involves their counterparts whenever appropriate.

The culture and priorities of our organizations need to reflect that, which is something that can start today and continue moving forward. There is deep value in acculturation and working together. Our nation is stronger and lives are saved when we recognize the need for cooperation early and align our practices accordingly. Trust, encourage, and use your partners, and have them do the same in turn with you!

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: As the oldest public university in the United States, W&M is deeply committed to serving our nation. If your organization would like to do more with Whole of Government approaches—whether in research, training, or education—then please reach out to us. Our entire university will work with you to help you leverage this powerful way to navigate known and unknown challenges and opportunities.

You can learn more about the Whole of Government Center of Excellence here.