Wednesday, February 16, 2011

FEMA-Quality or Quantity or both?

An article in today's NY Times discusses a wonderful effort of Craig Fugate to get corporate executives to spend some time at FEMA bringing in concepts from the private business world that could or do help FEMA do its job. This kind of interchange is important and seldom encouraged any more in the Executive Branch which is a factor in making business executives so important in importanting their knowledge and skills as appointees. Of course if they are corrupt and don't realize that the job they are given is not to pad their resume and make more contacts they can exploit in a corrupt government procurement system in the future then they do more harm than good. My hope of course is always for the best result. As an ethics official in FEMA from 1992-1999 it was always easy to spot at the go-in those who realized they were public servants and those who felt they were "owed" the job and should get only benefits and not bear the costs of being in a largely underfunded and poorly staffed and managed federal civil service.
But Craig is correct for another reason. There can often be no effective response without the private sector and certainly no long term recovery. Business continutiy including the wonder efforts of Arnold Family father and son over the last two decades have really built up greater comptence in that area. An people like John Copenhaver who have helped FEMA from inside and out have done wonders to make American business more resilient.

Still my worry is that when push comes to shove it is the quality of the career civil service that will allow FEMA to succeed or fail. In its first several decades FEMA's failures were often a result of lack of trust in management in its line officials, an attitude that they knew better, and a willingness to promote loyalty before competence.Sadly the results were often that the most competent people in FEMA were sidelined. These often were women and minorities. FEMA in my time from 1979-1999 was largely an Old Boys Club and an Old White Boys club at that. Fortunately in the General Counsel's office a generation of exceptional female lawyers many who left FEMA to have major careers elsewhere helped make up for the staffing shortages that plagued that office throughout its history.

Having been out of FEMA over 11 years I am not sure what I would find if I walked through the doors as a manager or supervisor today. Oddly there are still remnants of friends and others still clinging to the cliffs like Irish Monks in the middle ages preserving classical learning who have lived it all. But too frequently I hear that the 25-35 year olds think these folks battle scars are meaningless. In the 1980s a freakish absence of catastrophic disasters left FEMA disarmed when they finally hit in a fury in 1989 and following years. Hurricanes Hugo and Andrew showed the cupboard was pretty bare for large scale events. I keep hearing that FEMA is substantially larger than anytime in its past. I certainly hope so and hope it is far better qualified. Just as in the military having a bevy of even better qualified subordinates should be one of the principle tests for any manager's or supervisor's competence. Too often FEMA was only one layer from disaster because of understaffing. Time will tell what Craig has wrought. It suffices to say that his time since confirmation has been luckily free of catastrophe. I hope that record stands bu it may well not. So hoping that Craig undrestands the 15 planning scenarios have distinct limitations in what might happen. Still they are a start for building capabilty and requirements.
Again hoping for the best. At one time FEMA has 65 career and non-career SES positons. Was it top heavy? Maybe but wondering what the count and actual assignments are now? And how may have acted as FCO's?