Deep Resilience: The Hidden Work of Government Continuity

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Saturday, June 30, 2018

There are a few things I don’t talk about very much, and one of them is Continuity of Government (COG).  It’s about actions and protocols that maintain the continuity of Constitutional US government.  It’s not a light subject.  It doesn’t come into the light in the public sphere very often.


I very recently watched an episode of the CBS TV show Madam Secretary called “Night Watch” (summary here) that aired May 20, 2018.  The episode is about a whole lot.  I won’t attempt a summary, and won’t post spoilers.

I don’t like to give unsolicited advice, but here is an exception.  WATCH THIS EPISODE.  It is beyond remedial civics.  It touches on some of the deep core areas of the US government.

The Continuity World

I am going to choose my words very carefully in this post.

This episode gives a very good sense of the stakes when it comes to COG, and other very serious government issues.  My exposure to this work is around the edges of COG work, with more time in Continuity of Operations Programs, or “COOP.”  They are often lumped together as “COOP/COG.”  At the federal level, COOP work is most often deemed “For Official Use Only” (FOUO), which is sensitive protected information – but not classified.  Most details of federal COG work are classified.  In the private sector, businesses have “Continuity of Business,” or COB plans.  Similar principles.  The idea either way is to ensure continuity of your government, your agency, your operations, and/or your business.  It’s both critical and essential for long-term viability, and for effective risk management.

There is a framework for federal COOP/COG work, which gives specific information about supporting National Essential Functions (NEFs), Primary Mission Essential Functions (PMEFs), and Mission Essential Functions (MEFs).  Whether items are COG or COOP is contingent upon the framework and established guidance.

I will not share anything on this post that is FOUO or classified.  I do not have any experience in the nuclear aspects of the TV episode, which are not the focus of this post.

I will offer this bit of a reality-check on the episode.  There is no way that a team of high-level front-office Office of the Secretary employees at the US Department of State would have a loud discussion on this subject in a restaurant in public, or ask one of the team members if he is on “the list” of people who get “whisked away” to places – in the case of the unimaginable.  This is the sort of TV fictionalizing that happens in order to tell a story in an appealing way to viewers – like when Top Secret material is discussed on the show “NCIS” in a workroom with windows, cell phones, and random people walking through.  There are no SCIFs (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities) on TV or in the movies that aren’t sleek, well-lit, clean, and spacious.  I’m just saying:  reality can be significantly different.  You don’t discuss sensitive and/or classified information out in the open in public.

That being said, the episode is sobering.  It touches on the serious nature of work that most people don’t see, don’t want to see, or don’t want to think about.

Dark Work

When I was in Washington, DC, I worked for two departments’ Office of the Secretary – the US Department of the Interior (DOI), and the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  In a COOP/COG prep meeting for one of those departments, we were meeting with a contractor to discuss having various critical elements placed well outside of the blast zone of the Washington, DC area.  The contractor apparently did not understand what he was getting into prior to showing up for this meeting.  After we got into the material a bit, he found that he had some questions.

“The blast zone,” he said.  “I’m sorry.  What?”

We took a moment to explain.  “Washington, DC.  The blast zone.  Like if there was an attack.  A nuclear missile, or perhaps an Improvised Nuclear Device."

“Wait.  You are asking us to do work so that these things are outside of the city IN CASE THE WHOLE CITY IS DESTROYED?”  He wasn’t taking it well.  All remaining color was draining from his already-pale face.

“That’s what this work is,” one of us said.  “It’s contingency planning.  That’s what Continuity of Operations and Continuity of Government are all about.”

“Well,” he paused.  A moment passed.  “That’s pretty dark,” he finally said.

“Yep.”  Can’t argue that.

When I think of this work, I think of that guy.  He wasn’t much younger than me at the time, but this was a whole new world for him.  There’s contingency planning, and then there’s contingency planning.  Some of it is definitely dark.

Succession Planning

One of the things federal COG work includes is succession planning.  For Constitutional government, there is an “Order of Succession.”  This is an established order of government leadership who would assume the role of US president if the person in front of them was killed or made to be unfit for duty in some way.  Members of the cabinet are in this.

Within each department, there is also an order of succession, to fill the cabinet member’s role for the same reasons.  Agencies may have an order of succession as well.  For these orders of succession, most who would be in the succession designee role are political appointees.  In cases where political appointees have not been confirmed, there will be an “acting” designee for that role, who would then be the designee for that spot in the order of succession.  Leaders in “acting” roles are most often government employees – typically at the Senior Executive Service (SES) level – and not political appointees (SES positions can be designated as either political appointee positions or as regular government employees).

Departments and agencies have both COOP and COG facilities – usually at least a primary, secondary, and tertiary.  For example, during Hurricane Katrina, a few federal government agencies or offices were using secondary or tertiary locations.  Functional or operational facilities may also have alternate facilities designated - it's not just headquarters locations.  Dispatch or 911 centers are a common example.

There are related notification and mobilization systems in place to various extents across the government.

Similar guidance, processes, and procedures are in place for the judicial and legislative branches of government.


There is another term here that is relevant:  “devolution.”  The Google dictionary defines “devolution” as “descent or degeneration to a lower or worse state."

Devolution can trigger a need to activate continuity activities, via “the transition of roles and responsibilities for performance of Essential Functions through pre-authorized Delegations of Authority and responsibility.  The authorities are delegated from an organization’s primary operating staff to other employees internal or external to the organization in order to sustain Essential Functions for an extended period.  Devolution is a Continuity option instead of, or in conjunction, with relocation in order to ensure the continued performance of Essential Functions.”  From FEMA.

Devolution can happen at the state or local level as well – and continuity activities happen at those levels as well.  For example, during Hurricane Katrina, a few jurisdictions devolved to a certain extent.

Knowing that any jurisdiction – or government agency – is devolving can be sobering.  The reasons why the devolution could happen are one element, and the often-reduced capabilities during devolution are another.  Government is at the core of our social contract.  When it devolves, it can be extremely unsettling.  Thus the need to plan for contingencies – as much as possible.

When we talk about protecting federalism by ensuring that we have strong state and local institutions, this is an area that is critical.  Institutions and state and local governments themselves need continuity planning to ensure that they are as resilient as possible for a whole range of potential incidents and developments.

Businesses and other institutions also need continuity planning, noted at the front of this piece as "COB."  A resilient society is more ready to take some hits and keep functioning – whether they be infrastructure outages, attacks, or natural disasters.  COB work helps build economic resilience, and can also be a part of facilitating critical infrastructure security and resilience.

The Wrap-Up

That’s about what I’m going to say.  I share all of this because I have never in my life seen a television show or movie that reflected a sense of what the continuity world is all about until I saw this episode of Madam Secretary.  It hits close to home.  It’s emotional.  It’s fundamental.  It’s critical.

US federal government continuity operations are now being run by an administration under investigation for ties to a hostile foreign nation, a president who is meeting with that nation’s president shortly, and a president under criminal investigation who can now appoint a Supreme Court Justice who could potentially adjudicate any issues or outcomes with said investigation if things get rocky.

The existing federal continuity framework is derived from executive orders.  There is a possibility that there is new and potentially classified direction on this framework since the new administration took office.  Any chief executive can update or change prior executive orders, although such a person cannot unilaterally change laws.

When we talk about the US government, the security of it, the stability of it, and any potential constitutional crises, it may be important to be aware of what some of the government’s anchors are in the continuity realm.  As the Madam Secretary episode “Night Watch” shows, there are deep and deadly serious processeses in place to protect this country, and also to protect the continuity of the government of that country.

In the end, that wasn’t the point of the episode.  Amazingly, this continuity stuff was a side-bar.

The point of this post is not to scare the daylights out of you.  The point of this post is to educate.  To assess risk.  Perhaps to plant the seed to look into continuity planning at your home or work, or in the critical state or local institutions where you live.

We can build resilient communities at the state and local levels – and at work – even when the federal government is in some turmoil.

Knowing a bit more about this work might give you more information for your own resilience-building activities – or for work you can do with institutions you are working with.  There is much to come in the time that’s now – and much of it depends on actions we take now.

Be well.  Be safe.


Looking for help finding a way forward?  Looking at continuity of business or other work where you are?  Check out private coaching at inclusive pricing ratesThere are ways to navigate this, to stay sane, and to do some good while we're at it.

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