Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 8, 2006

Senate holds hearing on FEMA reorganization

Filed under: Organizational Issues,Preparedness and Response — by Christian Beckner on June 8, 2006

The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee held a hearing today on “National Emergency Management: Where Does FEMA Belong?”  Sec. Chertoff and Adm. Thad Allen testified at the hearing, making a case for keeping FEMA where it is – the latter reflecting on his experience as Principal Federal Officer during the response to Katrina and describing how cooperation between FEMA and the Coast Guard has never been closer.

But the most interesting testimony from the hearing came from U Penn. professor Donald Kettl, who made a persuasive case for keeping FEMA where it is.  The four key points from his testimony:

1. The problem is not structural. FEMA has substantial problems, but there is no evidence in recent times that it has performed substantially better as an independent agency than as a part of DHS; that differences in performance are the result of different structures; or that fundamental restructuring is likely to improve its results.

2. The solution must develop the capacity for an all-hazards-plus strategy. It is tempting to send a strong signal by pulling FEMA out of DHS. But that would only undermine its ability to accomplish its mission. Instead, FEMA needs to redefine its mission: to create capacity for an all-hazards-plus strategy that links preparedness and response, for both terrorist events and natural disasters.

3. Some organizational solutions would make things worse. That strategy requires keeping FEMA in DHS. Breaking these pieces apart—separating response to terrorism from response to natural disasters, separating preparedness from response, separating FEMA from DHS—would inevitably bring problems. We would surely suffer from duplication and overlap, as we recreate the same functions elsewhere in the federal government; and confusion and coordination problems, as we seek to link together what we have just separated.

4. Leadership matters most. Structure matters. But leadership counts far more.

He later argues that the cornerstone of leadership is developing “operational awareness,” defined as “a keen sense of front-line realities, and how to provide the federal support needed to maximize the effectiveness of front-line officials.”

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.

For more info, you can listen to the archived audio of the hearing. And I’ll put up press coverage of the hearing if/when it’s online.

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Comment by Claire B. Rubin

June 8, 2006 @ 8:07 pm

I think it is also worthwhile to read the testimony of Prof. Jack Harrald, presented at the same hearing.

Comment by Brian

June 9, 2006 @ 12:04 pm

While I know many HLS folks do not like to use military metaphors…here goes. Kettl is correct, as such, FEMA should be considered in the same light as a combative command. FEMA’s mission is finite, disaster and consequence management. Both missions are similar and complimentary. If divided intuitional knowledge would be lost, and equipment and staff would have to be doubled. This would be a very costly and ineffective move.

If one applied the same reasoning for incorporating FEMA into DHS, then why not roll up ICE and the Secret Service? Neither of organizations would allow this to happen, but the reality is that both of these organizations might be better suited in DHS. However, to place those agencies into DHS would hinder its mission because of the increased level of bureaucracy.

The culture in and around DHS must stop looking at DHS as a combative command, and being in the fight. DOD does not go to war, units go to war. DOD provides the resources to support the unit’s effort. Similarly, DHS should not go to war, but support its combat commands in the action of defending the homeland. Leave FEMA alone and provide the resources support it needs to be a combative command.

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