Dear Chief Fugate:
You don't know me and I have never met you. I have tried to learn more about you since the date you were interviewed by Secretary N. for a job in FEMA. I believe you were interviewed for the Deputy job and turned it down. That shows good self-esteem hopefully and not ego and hubris. So now after 18 months to settle in I thought it might interest you to have some thoughts from a FEMA retiree [retired 11 years on 10/1/2010]! I note for the record you are the third FIRE SERVICE person to lead FEMA. They have not been the best or the worst leaders FEMA has had but yes events sometimes unmask those who thought they were doing okay. So far I would argue you have not been really tested and with the Hurricane Season over the better lucky than good aphorism probably holds.
This letter will get somewhat technical and I cannot help that because in the past the devil has been in the details in FEMA. So I thought I would first list some of your accomplishments as a prelude towards the advice I would be offering you as a senior advisor and hopefully a trusted one.
Your campaign for individual and family preparedness has been excellent as have your speeches. But when push comes to shove as it well inevitably you need to know who in your organization you can trust to be competent and skilled in their jobs. From my vantage point it looks like there is still a core of competent appointees and employees in FEMA and hoping that the frustrations of a federal personnel system and poltical appointment process have not been too difficult a mountain for you to climb. Competent HR help is always in short supply and in my 20 years in FEMA from 1979-1999, there were 17 different heads of HR in the then independent FEMA. I also suspect that the personnel security world has come as quite a shock and recommend that you and you senior staff read the so-called Trefry Report from late 1992 under the George H.W. Bush Administration. It is a classic and acting on its suggestions was one reason James Lee Witt succeeded.
My view is that a competent, fully functioning, and transparent FEMA is what the citizens and residents of the US need, what STATES and their local governments need, what the civil agencies of the Executive Branch need, and especially what DHS, DOD, and DOJ need.
The Regional Offices could be a FEMA strength but have not been for several reasons. One is understaffing which I understand is being fixed to some extent. The second is uncertainty as to their role and their delegations. This could be fixed but it will take some doing.
The purpose of this open letter though is more basic. Has DHS resolved its issues vis a vis FEMA? Have you resolved issues in your own mind about an independent FEMA? Has the rank and file of FEMA adjusted to being housed in DHS? What is the culture you found in FEMA when you arrived and was it satisfactory to you or did you find you needed to make changes?
I can personally assure you that there was NO GOLDEN AGE in FEMA although some directors did better than others and one director was fortunate to have his President tell him [not in so many words] to ignore the national security culture in FEMA and stress the natural disaster side. Unfortunately, events intervened, and the national security part of FEMA's role was never allowed to be totally ignored by events including two WTC bombings and one Oklahoma City bombing.
The natural disaster side is heavily weighted by law and custom towards enhancing our federal system. Not so much the national security side of the FEMA equation. Yet resolution of the tensions between those two cultures I have reluctantly concluded will never happen and that tension might be useful to a skilled leader.
So let's move on from generalizations to specifics. And because I don't know how exactly you will answer some of these questions, I still have to ask them. They are part of the core of what kind of FEMA will exist under your leadership while you are its leader.
First, I note that the word "resilience" is now the new paradigm for DHS and I assume FEMA also. I am a supporter of that concept but only if it includes the following: (1) Preparedness; (2) Prevention; (3) Protection; (4) Mitigation; (5) Response; and finally (6) Recovery. FEMA is not responsible for all or even some portions of these paradigms in development, implementation, and/or operation but there does need to be a comprehensive set of understanding of who does what, and when and where do they do it?
How the rest of this letter fits into the theme of "resilience" only you can decide. The other decider might well be your staff and employees in their day to day decision making. To the extent any employee can make any decision that is unreviewed either because the employee has been appropriately delegated authority and accountability to make that decision he/she is a policy maker. Specifically if FEMA does not have the capability or "grip" to review individual employee decisionmaking then that employees decisions will stand as FEMA policy. This is not necessarily a bad thing since I believe that delegation of authority and accountability can be what FEMA needs. Employees don't need second guessing and Monday morning quarterbacking but they do need a system that reviews how decisions are made, who makes them and the decisions themselves so that FEMA can understand what it is actually doing. This is what makes for a so-called "Learning Organization" which is what FEMA must be.
So leading on to the guts of this letter I ask the following questions, which you will have to answer one way or another. And by the way just so you know the FEDERAL Courts view the failure to make a decision as NOT being an exercise of discretion. Instead, creating an administrative record, and a record of decision is what keeps agency's from acting in an arbitrary and capricious manner. You can be arbitrary, even ignoring the administrative record,documenting your reasons for your decisions, but you cannot be capricious. Another way to approach this and believe me it has been contested even in the Federal judicial system and various administrative courts, is the question of "Whether FEMA is the expert" agency even in the programs, functions,and activities it administers, and therefor entitled to deference by those reviewing FEMA actions. There is no question for me that FEMA has always created opportunities for world class expertise but also has often punished expertise and competence as threatening some organizations status or leadership. This should not be the culture but only your interest in developing and mentoring expertise in FEMA can overcome that past anchor on FEMA's performance.
And of course the basic questions for you are rather simple ones: Is it the primary job of FEMA to promote efficient and effective disaster relief and response and recovery? Or is it the primary job of FEMA to lessen the likelihood of disasters occurring?
These may require different organizational arrangements, and even skill sets and competencies.
But of course I would argue for the latter question to be answered yes and the former question to be answered no. Perhaps you can help resolve the answers in a more complementary way but I do understand what you face. FEMA is in reality understaffed and underfunded for its multiple missions, of which only two are the premises of the questions above.
I am trying to help not hinder and more open letters to you will follow from time to time. My intention is to indicate that some out there in the wild blue yonder do understand the very difficult task you have been assigned and hoping as always your longevity and skills and competencies make for a wonderful time in office as FEMA director. But FEMA is not fixed until some of these basic cultural themes are resolved and perhaps they never will be or should be. But for whatever time you are given your recognition that the tensions exist and you deal with them openly and competently will make for a better FEMA organization.
And just so you know no FEMA Director or Adminstator was all good or bad or competent or incompetent. They all had their virtues and vices. And I can argue a pretty good case either way for all. Check earlier postings on this blog.
So just do the best you can and call them as you see them because like the UMPIRE once said "they are neither a ball or a strike until I call them"! You have been given that chance to call them.