An Argument for Fixes at FEMA

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Commentator Paul Light talks about possible cures for the problems at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Light is a professor at New York University and the author of a book on how to strengthen sprawling agencies.


So there's a plan for rebuilding New Orleans. Now here's a plan for rebuilding the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Commentator Paul Light is author of "The Four Pillars of High Performance," which outlines his strategy for strengthening organizations like FEMA.


Contrary to the now conventional wisdom, FEMA was not the victim of the Homeland Security merger. Flooded by inexperienced political appointees at the top, the agency already ranked dead last on the list of best places to work in government well before Katrina hit. According to the federal government's own surveys, employees reported sharp declines in morale and resources in early 2002. Less than a third said they held their new leaders in high regard. The concerns are familiar across government where employees complain about the lack of resources and the politicalization of even trivial decisions, but the FEMA opinions are the worst I have ever seen, period.

FEMA had only recently rebounded from years as a political dumping ground for campaign aides with no place else to go. It failed miserably after Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992. Eight years of hard work brought the agency up to peak performance. Then inexperienced appointees brought the agency back down. Katrina shows yet again how important effective leadership is to government performance. On the day Katrina hit, half of FEMA's top political jobs were occupied by executives without any meaningful disaster experience. Seven of the top civil service jobs were filled by acting appointees. It's no wonder FEMA hesitated as the catastrophe took hold.

Luckily, the 2002 surveys also show that FEMA employees are deeply committed to their agency's mission. The vast majority know why their jobs matter and two-thirds say they have the skills and training to succeed. The challenge now is to mobilize that commitment and give every employee the training and resources to do their jobs.

FEMA still has a long way to go in rebuilding its reputation. Putting qualified leaders at the top is a critical start, so is focusing the agency on its primary mission as a fail-safe when local and state governments call. If there's a silver lining in Katrina, it's the possibility that the White House and Senate will finally start asking harder questions about appointee qualifications. Too many senators are willing to give the president's nominees the benefit of the doubt. That may work in some positions where experience doesn't matter but not at FEMA.

INSKEEP: That's a commentary from Paul Light. He's a professor at New York University.

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