Two former directors of FEMA, James Lee Witt and Mike Brown, responded to last week’s nomination of David Paulison to head FEMA with general praise for his capabilities, but skepticism as to whether anyone can succeed at FEMA today:
“The current structure of FEMA is not going to allow anyone to succeed. It just cannot be done,” said Brown, who was briefly interrupted during a panel discussion at The New School university by a heckler angry about the agency’s failures in New Orleans.
Brown said FEMA lost funding and focus when it was absorbed into a giant Homeland Security bureaucracy focused on preventing terrorist attacks and has since had trouble attracting qualified people to top jobs.
Witt called Paulison “an exceptionally good person” but said if he had been in his shoes, he would have turned the job down.
“Unless they pull FEMA out of the Department of Homeland Security and put it back as an independent agency, then he’s asking for failure,” Witt said.
“As long as the Department of Homeland Security has 22 federal agencies and 180,000 employees, it is going to be impossible to make it functional. Impossible,” he added.
Perhaps in hindsight was a mistake to take away FEMA’s independence in 2003 and move it into DHS, but I think it would be an even greater mistake to move it out of DHS today. I still believe that the rationale of the decision to integrate FEMA into DHS in 2003 was correct: taking an all-hazards approach that includes terrorism response. Obviously there have been very significant problems in FEMA’s execution and performance since 2003, but I don’t think the structure is solely to blame. A decision to make FEMA independent again would not miraculously fix all of FEMA’s problems. Instead, I think it’s more important to focus on the micro-level organizational issues within FEMA: the decision-making structures, chains of commands, personal incentive systems, performance metrics, and the influence of cliques and political loyalty within the organization. These are harder to address, but ultimately the kind of things that can make FEMA a first-class organization once more.