Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 4, 2006

FEMA reform: stop blaming the org chart

Filed under: Organizational Issues,Preparedness and Response — by Christian Beckner on May 4, 2006

The release of the Senate report on Hurricane Katrina has reinvigorated the public and Congressional debate on how to organize emergency preparedness and response. The Senate report recommended abolishing FEMA and creating a new National Preparedness and Response Authority (NPRA), and Sen. Collins and Sen. Lieberman are drafting legislation to implement this recommendation. Members of the House Homeland Security Committee are drafting legislation that is similar to this proposal, as reported yesterday by GovExec. (Here’s a sneak peek at the draft legislation).

Another school of thought within Congress argues that FEMA should be taken out of DHS, a view supported by Rep. Tom Davis, who led the House’s Katrina investigation, and acknowledged by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne in a column this week. And a third viewpoint, supported by Sec. Chertoff, favors leaving things the way they are, with preparedness activities separated from response and recovery within DHS.

My reaction: while organizational structure matters somewhat, it’s a distraction in the debate over what went wrong in the preparation and response to Hurricane Katrina. Sen. Collins and Sen. Lieberman identified four principal failures in their remarks discussing the Senate’s report: failures of planning, decision-making, systems, and leadership. None of those failures have organizational structure as a direct or proximate cause. Instead, these failures were primarily the result of two things: (1) the individual performances of people in some of the critical roles and (2) deficiencies in systems and lack of resources for the response effort (i.e. logistics systems, communications systems, sufficient National Guard and law enforcement personnel). If the debate focuses too much on structure and insufficently on these two sets of issues, then we risk moving towards a solution that creates an illusory sense of progress, but doesn’t hold people accountable for their actions or deliver the strategic core investments that are needed in the national response system today.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

May 5, 2006 @ 3:02 am

It is unclear to me who the Senate thinks is going to follow-up their report and where the money will come from for the fixes.
This is a quick fix suggestion to get US through the hurricane season. The United States Code is filled with Director of FEMA listings. A technical amendmet should be drafted creating a new Statutory Deputy Secretary for Crisis Management in DHS and everywhere in the United States Code it now reads Director of FEMA that position and title should be substituted. The new Deputy for Crisis Management would be designated now as the Principal Federal Official under the NRP for the forthcoming hurricane season. Long term the existing Under Secretary for Preparedness should report to the new Deputy Secretary for Crisis Management. Two new Assistant Secretaries should also report. One for Response and one for Recovery. A third term-limited Assistant Secretary for Gulf Coast Recovery should replace Powell who is completely lacking in any legal authority and has a hortatory/PR job only now.
The highest priority of Congress should be a rewrite of the Stafford Act reconciling the PFO and FCO jobs and making clear that the FEDS will pay 100% of the costs of the response to a Presidential Declared Disaster for the first 120 days, and then as each additional 12o period lapse the federal contribution will drop 10%. Part of the delays in federal/state responses in HUGO, ANDREW, and Katrina were money arguments. This should eliminate that problem and allow the feds to wind up and get ready for the next crisis. The Stafford Act rewrite should also make very clear the non-financial technical and law enforcement assistance to be provided in the first 120 days. My own opinion is that today the Stafford Act does not authorize and money to be spent for federal law enforcement activity. See 28 CFR Part 65. Federal law enforcement funding has been creepong into the Stafford Act since the Murrah Building explosion in 1995. This should be stopped. Just as DOD should bear its own costs, the federal law enforcement community should bear its own costs. The Stafford Act should fund only the civil agencies response and recovery.
Perhaps the quickest fix of all would be to have the President designate the Vice President as the PFO for the next catastrophe.

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Blog Archive » GAO report considers FEMA organizational options

May 9, 2006 @ 4:43 pm

[…] FEMA reform: stop blaming the org chart […]

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Blog Archive » The root causes of homeland security dysfunction

May 18, 2006 @ 12:03 pm

[…] Second, he proposes a reorg of FEMA to separate “administrative” recovery from “operational” preparedness and response, and suggests giving the latter to the Coast Guard. I’m a bit averse to this idea for the reasons stated here. Third, he proposes the creation of a professional career-track within DHS, akin to the uniformed military and foreign service officers, which he calls a “homeland security corps.” This is an excellent and necessary idea; here was my proposal about how to do this, from a post two months ago: One solution that could mitigate this outcome would be the creation of a professional and competitively-selected “Homeland Security Officer” career track, similar to the State Department’s Foreign Service. These “HSOs” could be drawn initially from the existing pool of high-qualified people at agencies such as the Coast Guard, CBP, and the Secret Service, and competitively selected in future years. Participants in the DHS Scholars and Fellows program could be offered streamlined entry. It could be implemented in a way similar to the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols reforms of the Defense Department, which require military officers to have a rotation outside of their core service branches as a precondition for promotion. These HSOs could serve in a large share of the key non-political jobs at the DHS HQ (and in Operations & Analysis and Infrastructure Protection) and ensure continuity by assuming acting roles during times of transition. A marquee professional track at DHS would also help the Department to attract the best and the brightest candidates for employment. […]

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Senate holds hearing on FEMA reorganization

June 8, 2006 @ 6:21 pm

[…] This is exactly right in my opinion, and is consistent with what I’ve been arguing as the debate about what to do with FEMA has moved forward over the last few months. […]

Pingback by Cooked Goose » Blog Archive » Could There Be Common Sense in Our Government?

June 15, 2006 @ 10:35 pm

[…] Homeland Security Watch also reported on the GAO findings and felt similar to how I feel about it: I made a similar point in a post last week, and agree entirely that the issue of organizational structure is secondary. Hopefully the current debate in Congress will not get bogged down on organizational issues, but will instead focus on the less-visible but more important determinants of FEMA’s success. […]

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » New report on “The Forgotten Homeland”

June 29, 2006 @ 12:42 am

[…] But there are also a number of ill-advised ideas in the report. The authors argue that the government should “resist structural solutions to functional problems” but then contradict themselves by proposing removing FEMA from DHS and offering several other structural recommendations. As I’ve argued before, removing FEMA from DHS would be precisely the wrong step to take at this time, because it would create the illusion of a solution to what are functional problems at their core. […]

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