Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 9, 2006

GAO report considers FEMA organizational options

Filed under: Organizational Issues,Preparedness and Response — by Christian Beckner on May 9, 2006

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report today on FEMA, and its “Factors for Future Success and Issues to Consider for Organizational Placement.” The report provides a solid overview of factors to consider in restructuring FEMA. In that regard, it serves as a good companion piece to the Congressional Research Service’s recent report on the history of federal organization for emergency management. But more importantly, it makes the point that organizational structure is not the most important factor in determining FEMA’s future success, commenting:

As Comptroller General Walker has noted previously, a number of factors may be ultimately more important to FEMA’s success in responding to and recovering from future disasters than its organizational placement.

These include:

  • the clarity of FEMA’s mission and its related responsibilities and authorities;
  • the experience of and training provided to FEMA leadership;
  • the adequacy of its human, financial, and technological resources; and
  • the effectiveness of planning, exercises, and related partnerships.

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.

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1 Comment »

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 9, 2006 @ 10:23 pm

The General Accountability Office has weighed in with a document that is light as a feather. One sound reform that GAO could make is to have a lawyer assigned to each of its teams, or at least have a legal review of its reports. FEMA was not created by Executive Order. It was implemented by two Executive Orders (12148 in July 1979 was the final implementation) that were implementing Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1978 (codified at 5 USC Section 901 Note).

GAO has put forth nothing new in this contribution to the current discussion and of course again fails to indicate the cost of anything or where the money will come from.

Let’s briefly review. The House report documented problems and perhaps more important documented that Michael Brown did have a point that FEMA was systematically stripped of funds and FTE once in DHS because other elements of DHS has not properly budgeted or planned for their programs, functions, activities, or needed staff. The predecessor agencies stripped out everything they could from organization and programs, functions, and activities being transferred. The only reason FEMA was not a culprit is that it was the sole independent agency that came into DHS. For example, much had been made of the transfer of the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici programs to protect against WMD (Weaponds of Mass Destruction)from DOD in FY 1999. The National Domestic Preparedness Office stood up by AG Janet RENO but never fully funded or staffed or delegated authority by the AG or given authority by Congress was treated as if it was something significant being transferred from DOJ to DHS under the Homeland Security Act and in a way justification for FEMA not being given the terrorism preparedness mission in the Homeland Security Act but instead being assigned to another office and Directorate in DHS. In fact, DOJ transferred no slots and no money. Other examples exist but GAO gave a clean bill of health to the support the transferree departements and agencies gave DHS. What a laff.

An argument can be made that starting with the destruction of the FEMA name in the White House drafting session on the Administration version of what became the Homeland Security Act, for whatever reasons, the system that had worked for relatively slow moving disasters under President Clinton (there was a full 12 weeks notice on the 93 floods), or where the disaster occurred in a big rich state (California does not even want to see FEMA until the recovery phase-of course they do want those federal bucks), or the event was geographically defined and limited (the Murrah Building in 95 and the World Trade Center in 93 & 2001) the system of throwing money at the events worked. But we should all now be aware that crisis management and response is far more than money. To that extent the other factors identified by GAO are certainly material. In the face of destruction of a true civil service since Carter’s other reorganization in 1978 the reorganization of the Civil Service System splitting the old Civil Service Commission into three (3) pieces the systematic destruction of the civil service has preceded apace. The system was never great, but at least there was some confidence that someone in the civil service might show up. That issue aside. What else has occurred.

Well, GAO could have indicated that because DOD has gotten billions for Homeland Defense (but its Katrina performance is a closely guarded secret still because it was bad not good) and this does not include 30 years of what might rise to malfeasance, misfeasance, and non-feasance by the USACE that I consider separate from other DID issues) the civil agencies have been chronically understaffed and underfunded for their crisis management role.
If analysis shows that all-hazards does not or should not include “Terrorism” incident/events then the rationaled for FEMA in DHS fails. I think it does make sense to have a single system and so did the more thoughtful intellects in the Reagan administration, see e.g. NSDD-47 covered mobilization for a spectrum of events.
This is not to confuse the fact that certain elements of crisis response and recovery are highly technical, in particular (1) monitoring for contamination; (2) decontamination of persons and property, (3) issuance of PAR’s (Protective Action Recommendations) to the public and emergency public information (THIS IS NOT THE SAME AS THE PUBLIC AFFAIRS MISSION); (4) decisions on access and reentry; (5) relocation of the population and mass sheltering, feeding and medical care. These are just examples.

IT IS TIME FOR AMATEUR (sic) NIGHT TO END! And GAO better stop assigning amateurs to this issue. The future of the oldest and richest democracy is an example to the world. In most nations the military does it because guess what—As long as armed force can keep citizens from rioting over the relief effort-they never have to worry about federalism, law, thoughtful civil reconstruction issues. For those who may forget. Perhaps it was not STAR WARS and the strategic balance that broke the back of the old Soviet Union but Chenyobly (where the Soviet Union ran out of concrete but not heroism) and the Armenian Earthquake (when even the RED ARMY was unable to get enough shovels and they had to stand and watch the survivors die in the rubble).

Finally, Katrina was not the big one but just a very probably routine event. Imagince the BIG ONE in Californina with So. California cut off from food, water and medical help for days, weeks, months. Or suppose NEW Madrid. Or suppose a NUDET in a major city.

The question is not who is in charge. We are all in charge. The question is who has the skills, ability, and resources to help our fellow citizens, whether rich or poor, whether they have cars or not. All this takes time and so far both Congress and the Executive Branch have failed to make use of the time since either 9/11 or Katrina. The blind lead the blind. Clinton and Witt did have a system. Focus FEMA on natural disasters, but they had nothing like Katrina and interestingly neither controlled the bowels of OMB that absolutely rejected catastrophic crisis planning and response. As George Marshall is reputed to have said “The real history of this country is a lack of preparedness.” That history continues.

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