Don’t kill FEMA

The Thinker by Rodin

A bipartisan Senate panel thinks that the only way to save the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is to kill it. That is right; put a stake through its heart. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has been quoted as saying that FEMA is in shambles, beyond repair, and it needs to be abolished.

Over in the House of Representatives, House Transportation and Infrastructure chair Don Young (R-AK) has a completely different tack. He introduced a bill on May 9th to remove FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) entirely. Under his bill, FEMA would become a cabinet level government agency again. Not everyone in the House agrees, of course. A bill introduced by Dave Reichert (R-WA), chair of the House Homeland Security Emergency Preparedness Subcommittee, would keep FEMA where it is inside of DHS, but strengthen it.

There is no question that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina last year, FEMA performed miserably. Here is it, nine months later, and it is hard to see much tangible progress rebuilding New Orleans. (Fortunately, other parts of the Gulf Coast are doing better.) New Orleans is a fraction of its former population. Most of those who left are unlikely to come back. The future Chocolate City, if it recovers, is more likely to resemble an Oreo Cookie.

Meanwhile, the 2006 hurricane season is almost upon us. I hope that during this season that there will not be so many hurricanes that we have to resort to the Greek alphabet again. Nonetheless, the upward trend in hurricanes (as well as other natural disasters) is worrisome. Our government needs to be much better prepared this year. It is hard to see how abolishing FEMA is going to improve the situation. Even a bad response to a major hurricane beats no response.

It is clear what went wrong with FEMA. First, against its wishes, it was absorbed into the new Department of Homeland Security. Second, its disaster preparedness budget was dramatically cut. Third, President Bush picked Michael Brown to run the agency. He came with the sterling qualifications of running the Arabian Horse Association. Fourth, FEMA was forced to take on new missions in national security for which it had no expertise.

Not surprisingly, FEMA quickly moved from one our most effective federal agencies to one of our most dysfunctional agencies. Knowing these major changes were no way to do disaster management, senior employees and critical knowledge workers grew disgusted and left. Among those who remained, morale plummeted. Meanwhile, at the nascent Department of Homeland Security, when they were not scurrying around trying to get a dozen agencies to dance together, they saw the threat of international terrorism as their top priority. FEMA’s natural disaster preparedness program got table scraps. Moreover, now it had to petition for the president’s ear through Michael Chertoff, the secretary of DHS.

This was not a palatable recipe for an agency that needed to be agile. Consequently, FEMA became a shadow of its former self. When Hurricane Katrina barreled into the Gulf Coast, it demonstrated that it no longer had the right resources to respond to major natural disasters.

From its formation in 1978 until it was absorbed into DHS, FEMA excelled at dealing with natural disasters. This is not to say they did not make their share of mistakes over the years. Any major disaster requires recovery time. Nevertheless, typically FEMA could be a major presence in a disaster zone within days of the natural disaster. They had food and bottled water distribution and the emergency shelter business down to a science. Living in disaster zones was not grand, but thanks to FEMA, it was bearable.

Killing FEMA makes no sense. Rather FEMA needs a little disaster help of its own. It needs funding and the right kind of leadership to regain its moorings. A former FEMA director would be a good transitionary choice for the agency. Instead of having to perform new missions, it needs to focus on being the agency that coordinates and provides initial relief for medium and large-scale natural disasters. Muddying its mission has proven disastrous.

In addition, since the president solemnly swears to protect the United States of America, FEMA needs cabinet level status again. Millions of people at risk from a natural disaster should not have to wait while an intermediary bureaucracy decides whether an event warrants presidential attention.

If FEMA is killed, something resembling it will doubtlessly be rebuilt. Since the number of disaster preparedness officials is a finite number, any new agency will probably have most of the same people who are already work for FEMA. It is likely though that as a new organization and chain of command is put in place, this new agency will in the short term become more ineffectual. Consequently, killing FEMA is likely to reduce our ability to respond to natural disasters. It seems unlikely that a new FEMA would perform better than the FEMA we knew and respected prior to its inclusion in DHS.

So do not kill it. The recipe is simple: put FEMA back the way it was in the 1990s. Pull it out of DHS. Put it back in the cabinet. Keep its mission focused on natural disaster readiness. Moreover, provide it with adequate funds to ensure it can respond to natural disasters that seem to be growing in size and complexity.

Like moving an aircraft carrier with paddles

The Thinker by Rodin

As you might expect on my forum we have been discussing Hurricane Katrina. Who is to blame? Who is not to blame? Some fault New Orleans mayor C. Ray Nagin for not having fleets of school buses ready to ferry citizens to safety. Others criticize the Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco for not having an effective response to Hurricane Katrina. (It is harder to be effective when a third of the state’s National Guard is stuck in Iraq.)

Those of us living outside Louisiana are more focused on the response by federal officials. FEMA director Michael Brown dutifully fell on his sword. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff so far seems to be dodging responsibility, but he may be called to account in time. President Bush now says that he takes responsibility for the poor response by the federal government. These are surprising words from him, since he has spent the first five years of his presidency avoiding accountability. Naturally, his admission does not mean that he is planning to resign. Atonement seems to consist of spending in only a few months more money on hurricane relief and reconstruction than we spent so far for the entire Iraq war. Doubtless, his political adviser Karl Rove is pushing him to do so because he is fearful that some otherwise red states may flip to blue. It takes a heap of money to satisfy over a million very angry and displaced citizens, if it can be done at all.

It is human nature to cast blame. In this case, there appears to be plenty to go around. I would like to suggest that perhaps Congress was also to blame by creating the Department of Homeland Security in the first place.

Just in case you are wondering if I hate America and want terrorists to run free, that is not how I feel. I just wonder if creating a centralized cabinet level department, amounting to the largest reorganization of the federal government in fifty years, was the smartest way to protect our homeland. As a long-term strategy, perhaps it made some sense. In the short-term those of us who have been around the bureaucracy a while knew what to expect: a lot of dysfunction and chaos.

The last agency I worked for, the Administration for Children and Families is a typical example of what happens when agencies merge. When I arrived in 1998, the agency was still quite obviously still the two agencies it had been prior to 1991. The reality was that it still acted like the two agencies it had been: the Family Support Administration and the Office of Human Development Services. Each was still doing its own thing, right down to using dissimilar email systems. Sure, they were trying to become one integrated agency but it was still a daunting process. Each agency had a long legacy of doing things their own way. Each had programs that had to keep going in spite of the merger. So merging the two agencies into one agency in reality was something that was very hard to do. It was a little like running and juggling at the same time. It is possible, but most of us do not acquire this skill easily.

By government standards, the merger that produced ACF was not too complex. After all, these were just two agencies that needed to come together, not a dozen. In addition, they belonged to the same department before the merger. By the time I left, thirteen years after the merger, integration finally felt achieved. For one thing, the agency was finally using one email system.

Now look at this new Department of Homeland Security. Pieces of DHS came from the Treasury, Health and Human Services, Justice, Transportation, Agriculture, Defense and Energy departments. It also absorbed portions of independent agencies like the FBI and GSA, and the entire Federal Protective Service. Before the merger, these agencies rarely talked to each other.

Of course, each of these agencies had previous missions that were left largely intact after their consolidation into DHS. While the DHS secretary had authority over these agencies, the reality was that getting them orchestrated was and continues to be a big and frustrating endeavor. To take one example, a new DHS performance based personnel system needs to be created. Meanwhile these agencies are having a tough time continuing their old mission. Why? Because a lot of chaos is being thrown at them. Just because INS became ICE did not mean that immigrants were going to stop coming into the country. Second, they have new or expanded missions directed by the DHS secretary. Third, boundary lines and responsibilities became unclear. They may be there on paper, but working through the low-level intricacies to implement these changes is very difficult. Fourth, they are being pressured to make all these big changes very quickly. The result is that instead of having a dozen or so agencies that in the past were reasonably effective in their individual missions, now there are a dozen or so agencies with reduced ability to carry out their missions. They seem like they are stuck in the tar pit.

There are possible ways around this sort of bureaucratic mess. One way is to have centralized budgetary authority but to continue to let each agency to perform its mission relatively freely. In other words, the DHS secretary could set goals for what needed to be done but leave the strategy and implementation to the individual agencies. The downside is that each agency may misinterpret what they should do, and there may be turf battles. The upside is the things that each agency can probably carry out its individual missions fairly well, since sand is probably not gunking up their engines.

It appears though that DHS, trying to bend to the will of the president and Congress, promised the moon. They would do it all, and they would do it all very quickly. It was a stupid thing to promise of course. However, good civil servants simply salute and do their best to make it so. Unfortunately, their best cannot possibly meet Congress’s unrealistic and stratospheric expectations. Congress always asks for the moon, and they want it yesterday. They expect elephants to dance immediately.

The result is a lot of bureaucratic dysfunction, some of which I believe was sadly but predictably manifest in the response to Hurricane Katrina. It was the idea of homeland security meeting the sad but predictable reality of how fast a new large organization can meet its new mission. Instead of acting like a well-trained police force, we had the Keystone Kops. Should we act surprised if they were never sent to the academy?

Our government is of course very large because it is being asked to manage large, difficult and multifaceted problems. Believe it or not it can do many things very well. I ought to know. I have been a civil servant for over twenty years. My current agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, is amazingly well run and effective. However, it has also largely been left to itself. It retains the same name it had when it was created in the 19th century. As a science organization, it is largely left alone to do its science. I have little doubt that if it were pulled apart and its pieces stuck in different departments that it would devolve into a collection of inefficient pieces.

A new department like DHS can be envisioned like new large aircraft carrier just out of the dry dock. The crew is new, coming on board, finding their quarters and checking out the ship. The crew consists of people who worked on completely different kinds of ships and boats. So right now, the crew is trying to figure out how to get the engines to run and to steer the ship. It will come in time. Nevertheless, for now expecting DHS to move efficiently is like trying to move this aircraft carrier with many long paddles from the flight deck. Perhaps with everyone rowing at the same time even this behemoth ship will move. However good the idea of DHS was in the abstract, do not expect it to be smooth sailing for many years to come. Let us hope those out to destroy our country have many other distractions or are more inept.

Time to take off the rose colored glasses

The Thinker by Rodin

Like many Americans, I am trying to grasp the scale of the disaster inflicted by Hurricane Katrina. Words seem to be inadequate. News accounts, images on TV and in the newspaper go far beyond poignancy. It is hard to fathom the agony that many of my fellow citizens are dealing with. It is hard for me to even know how to adequately respond. I gave money to the American Red Cross, like I usually do in these situations. Yet I also feel like I should be doing more. I feel like I should be rolling bandages or something. But for now I am too shocked to do much differently.

We all have had our brushes with disaster during life. The closest my wife and I came to disaster happened a day after we settled on our first house, a townhouse. The previous owners rented the place and did not care too much about maintenance. Some bozo “fixed” a toilet problem with a wing nut. It came loose and the toilet went on perpetual overflow mode. We arrived the next day to paint (it happened sometime after closing) to find the ceilings down and inches of standing water on the ground floor. All we had was a verbal promise from our insurer that we were covered. And after the closing costs we were as poor as church mice. At the time, it seemed insurmountable. However, in a month it was mostly a bad memory.

The scale of our little “disaster” would not register as a pinprick to someone trying to survive today in New Orleans, Biloxi or one of the many communities inundated by Hurricane Katrina. None of our resources applied to this problem can keep what appears to be thousands of people from dying in the fetid lake that is now New Orleans. Hundreds or thousands are likely already dead.

My cousin Beth was one of the luckier ones. She had the presence and the money to get out of the city. She owns a house in New Orleans. She has no idea whether it is still standing. If it then it is likely looted. She will be lucky if she is permitted to return to her house within six months. Her assets are now largely what she managed to cram into her car. Nevertheless, she made it out safely. She is staying with her brother in St. Louis. My family is thinking of taking up a collection for her, and we are providing offers of shelter as she considers other jobs. Perhaps she will eventually return to her job in New Orleans but it sounds like it is gone with the wind and the water. Of course, she left many friends in New Orleans. She has no idea how many are alive or dead.

I get the impression that the media is making a lot less of this disaster than it should. This may be because New Orleans is currently so inaccessible. Scary posts like this suggest that the final death toll may conservatively be in the tens of thousands. For some perspective, this would be even a larger death toll than the hurricane in 1900 that struck Galveston, Texas and killed 6,000 people. However, in 1900 Galveston was a relatively small city. America has grown since then. New Orleans itself has 1.3 million people.

I am torn between wanting to point fingers and throwing my hands up in despair. This exact scenario was not exactly unanticipated. Clearly much more should have been done to avoid this catastrophe. The money the Army Corp of Engineers requested to shore up levees and add pumps turned out to be a fraction of their request. It appears that war in Iraq and tax cuts were more important than the boring business of shoring up levees. So of course, I am angry. Yet my anger must be nothing compared to the citizens of New Orleans. It is all gone and life for those who remain is a chancy game of surviving thirst, hunger and heat stroke.

Yes, I think that we could do a whole lot more than we are doing. I do not understand why every helicopter owned by the U.S. government in the continental United States has not been mobilized to get stranded citizens out of the city. I do not understand why we cannot at least drop food and bottled water to those who are on the brink of perishing. However, I also know that disasters are by their very nature chaotic. The best-laid plans have to adapt to the reality on the ground. I am sure there will be a commission a few years from now that will detail the myriad mistakes that were made. Moreover Bush, if he is still in office, will make sober sounding speeches saying that the United States will be prepared next time. Yet we all know that when things return to something resembling normal that we will go back to politics as usual.

Will they really? This disaster has the potential to spiral far beyond the flood ravaged and wind affected areas. Naturally, gasoline prices are sharply increasing across the nation. Nevertheless, I am more concerned about whether gas will be available at all. We are already seeing gas lines in places we do not expect, such as in Orlando, Florida. I read in the paper that my area is served by a petroleum pipelines from New Orleans that are not operating: there is no electricity to pump the oil up to be refined. Therefore, I will not be surprised if I am also a tangential victim of this storm. I guess if I survived gas lines in the late 1970s, I can do it again.

I am baffled and befuddled by some of my fellow citizens. I have never been to New Orleans or Biloxi and I am sure they are (were) wonderful places. Nevertheless, why would sensible people choose to move to a place that is ripe for disaster? New Orleans itself is below sea level. Storms happen. Are these Americans absent the common sense gene? I have a sister in Fort Lauderdale whose boat was damaged when Hurricane Katrina passed through. This was when it barely qualified as a hurricane. She is dealing with it. She and her husband dodged many hurricanes in their years in Florida. Every year it is one or more high stakes gamble with Mother Nature. This time their lifestyle received a bad wound. Is any coastal Florida lifestyle worth this gamble to life and property?

I imagine that New Orleans will be rebuilt. Yet I also wonder why. It is inevitable that something like this will recur some time in New Orleans’ future. It will happen to Miami one of these days too. Ditto for every major city along the East Coast and the Gulf Coast. Is it natural selection that causes us to move to these places? Or are we inveterate gamblers who thrill playing against the odds? Or are we so caught up in the present that we cannot imagine the probable consequences of our choice?

With sea temperatures warmer than a century ago, it does not take a meteorologist to understand cause and effect. The increased temperature adds to the potency of the hurricane. Seas are warmer at least in part because of manmade global warming. Some would argue that this is precisely what happened in New Orleans.

Meanwhile rising sea levels will slowly encroach on our coastal areas. Perhaps we can hold them off indefinitely. The Dutch seem to have figured out a way to reclaim the North Sea in spite of all odds. However, I personally doubt that Mother Nature can be defeated in the end. Every state needs laws that limit or even prohibit development near coastlines. It simply invites trouble.

As Cindy Sheehan is a harbinger about our War in Iraq, so is Hurricane Katrina a likely harbinger for our nation’s future. If we were smart, we would take heed. A few weeks ago, I said I felt like we were at the end of the best of times. Hurricane Katrina may make it official. I want to say that gas lines, a recession and serious inflation are not in our immediate future, but I feel it in my heart. Just as Iraq collapsed our house of cards internationally, Katrina shows just how vulnerable we are to natural disasters. Bush has been Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burned.

Therefore, my fellow Americans, it is past time for all of us to wake up. Do not smell the coffee. Smell the raw sewage and decaying bodies in New Orleans. Get used to the idea of costly gas and waiting in long lines for gas. You should hope that as inflation returns that your job is not a casualty. Admit that you sinned when you bought that SUV. I hope you can buy a hybrid at any price. Nevertheless, as I warned a couple times the era of cheap oil is over. It is time to acknowledge the obvious. You should downsize your life, pay down your debts, fatten your bank accounts and live prudently. You should be paying attention to macro trends. Do you live within a few miles of your job and convenient groceries? If you do not then you should be working to rearrange your life. You too may be like a victim of Hurricane Katrina if you are too dependent on your car.

Hurricane Katrina is likely to be the biggest natural disaster for my country in my lifetime. As horrible as 9/11 was, this disaster is far worse. If we must find someone to blame then we best look in the mirror. Yet so far, we do not seem to grasp its magnitude or ultimate significance. We think that in a few weeks or months that things will be back to normal. I hope so too. But I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore. A new and greyer dawn is breaking. It is time to peer over our windowsills, steel ourselves and grapple with its ugly reality.

Workforce Planning – An Oxymoron?

The Thinker by Rodin

“We are all interested in the future,” the “futurist” Criswell once said, “because that’s where we will spend the rest of our lives.”

I spent the last week or so at work planning for the future. All good businesses are supposed to look ahead and anticipate the future. The same is true with the federal government. In my little corner of the civil service my boss handed me the responsibility of putting together a workforce plan for the next five years.

Well this was certainly something new. I wondered if this was just another paper exercise or something that we might actually use. I was tempted just to jot down random thoughts in a Word document, call it a plan and then archive it somewhere where no one will actually see it or use it. Why? Because it seemed to me that if the Congress and the White House can’t adequately plan for the future, why should my little corner of the federal bureaucracy? My poor overworked boss, for example, has to make our federal information system comply with the Clinger-Cohen Act. Among other things the act requires that federal systems be rigorously planned and projected out for the next five years. Performance standards are set in advance and variances of just five percent can end us up on watch lists. It’s not a good thing to get on a watch list. If you are unwise enough to get on one of them you will spend your days being terminally micromanaged instead of actually getting any work done.

What’s sauce for federal agencies should be sauce for the Congress. But of course it doesn’t work that way. My agency should be able to count on its annual appropriation bill being passed and signed into law before the start of the fiscal year on October 1st. But nine times out of ten Congress has found more important things to do then get around to the pesky business of passing appropriation bills. So we linger for months in a series of congressional Continuing Resolutions that dribble out money to our agency until Congress decides what it really wants to appropriate for the fiscal year. Generally this means our plans are on hold because we don’t know what we will be allowed to spend. Eventually the appropriation bill is signed into law and money arrives in a rush. And then often chaos ensues because the actual money appropriated and the money planned rarely match up. Yet while all this is happening we are planning for the next three years. Given past experience these plans will mean little either.

So I was somewhat sanguine when I sat down and tried to create a workforce plan looking five years in the future. It was time to see if I had any psychic powers. Could I read the mind of the President and the Congress where so many had failed? It seemed best to me to plan for the most likely worst-case scenario. It was a good bet that if President Bush had to choose between tax cuts and fully funding my agency, tax cuts would win. So it seemed a safe assumption that we’d have the same amount of money, or less than we have currently. Water resources are pretty boring compared with homeland security and defense so we won’t be on the top of anyone’s list. Plus the Washington Post said President Bush was going to propose a flat budget. Figuring our appropriation would at best stay steady but cost of living raises would have to be absorbed, a three percent reduction in man-hours over the next three fiscal years seemed prudent. Why three years? Because after the next three years Bush would be out of office. For years four and five I assumed the next president would at least fully index us for inflation, so I kept the manpower steady.

Three percent of man-hours though are not trivial. It means someone won’t be doing work for us. It also means our water information system will be more in maintenance than development mode. A lot of our work is done by federal employees whose time we buy part time from other districts inside our agency. Most likely these people, and not the full time staff, would take the brunt of the reductions. Some of them might be out of a job. Hopefully their districts would scramble and find other work for them.

But with attrition rates of about five percent a year, it looked possible that no one would lose their jobs. But of course workforce planning is also about making sure you have the skills you need in the future, not the skills you have now. What skills would we need in five years? It was time to summon my psychic powers again.

Coming from an agency where outsourcing was king I figured my agency would likely see a lot more outsourcing. It was hard to imagine how they could outsource many of us. After all finding information technology people who know hydrology is not a trivial task. But looking over the people we employed I could see the green eyeshade people would likely scrutinize some of our employees. For example, in theory database administrators should not be outsourced since they hold the keys to sensitive information. But in actuality they have a commoditized skill so they are fairly easy to outsource. The same is true with the people running and managing our servers. In fact in the network area the trend is to outsource not just the people but the whole network infrastructure. I could see in five years that my agency would be paying some private data service center that would guarantee bandwidth and storage space. Anyone involved in configuring and patching Solaris and Linux machines might well be unemployed or doing other stuff.

Ouch. This hurts because a lot of these people are my friends. I didn’t want them to lose their jobs. But my hunch is they would be a lot more likely to stay employed with us if they knew how to manage contracts with external service providers. In fact, with trends like storage area networks I could see the whole notion of managing physical servers going away. Want a server? Create a virtual dedicated server in a storage area network. Need more space? Tell the Oracle 10g database and it will find it, configure it and put it to use immediately. By using grid technologies we will neither know nor care where it is. It will just be a network service purchased with government money and professionally managed by external corporations optimized for this sort of work.

I finished my plan and gingerly gave it to my boss. I warned her I felt it had to be politically incorrect. I was stepping on too many toes. But she said I did an excellent job and to coordinate it with the other unit chiefs.

And so I find myself rooting against my own plan. I put it together trying to do it in the most benign way possible and still recognize the likely reality that we were going to get less and less money but be asked to do more and more. But it seems however controversial my ideas they seemed fairly well grounded in reality, at least according to my boss.

So it seems to be that all I can do is ring the alarm bell. There are icebergs out there but they are hard to see. But if we can be proactive then we can save our valuable employees a lot of pain now by not filling positions and by moving in areas we may not want to move toward, like network consolidation. But there will still be pain. Whether with or without a plan the dollars we’ll get are likely to be fewer. We can only minimize our pain while trying to be the most effective we can with the money we have.