Remarks for James L. Witt
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Reinvention at Excellence in Government Program
Thank you for that introduction.
Today I thought I'd talk with you about what I view as the central
ingredient in excellent government: the ability to lead change.
I keep a sign on my desk that says:
"When entering this room, don't say, 'We've never done it that way
I do that for two reasons. The first is that I believe in that motto
The second is that I know it's often a needed reminder.
It's only human to be a little resistant to change, whether it's change
in government, change in a business or just change in your own life.
We've had a lot of change at FEMA in the last few years -- most it, I
hope, for the better -- and I thought I'd share with you today a little
bit of what we've learned.
Call it my Eight Rules for Successfully Leading Change.
Rule 1. Never lose your focus on the customer.
Obvious advice, right? It is. And like a lot of advice, it's easier to
say than do.
That's especially true in government, where the rules often center on
programs rather than people.
Our first step toward reinvention was defining our customer -- in our
case, people either preparing for or recovering from disasters.
The moment we decided to measure our success based on how those people
were served instead of how our programs were run, we were on the road to
Our next destination was deciding what service we were going to
provide. Which brings me to:
Rule 2. State your mission.
That, too, seems like obvious advice - but it rarely gets
When FEMA was established in the 1970s, its mission focused mainly on
In the 1980s, the priority was preparing for nuclear attack.
By the time I got there, the Cold War was over but natural disasters
were still occurring and nobody had a clear sense of what to do.
So we re-stated our mission in clear terms -- help the nation prepare
for, respond to and recover from natural disasters.
Once you have a mission, you also have a blueprint for structuring your
Rule 3. Structure your organization around your mission.
Seven years ago, FEMA was organized to run programs, not to serve
people. Just about every program had an office.
As a result, everybody came to work in the morning and said: What does
my program need today?
But nobody woke up in the morning thinking: How can we do a better job
of preventing disaster damage?
Or, how can we do a better job responding when disasters strike?
Once we identified our customers and articulated a mission, we began
the process of restructuring FEMA.
The result were Directorates built around central aspects of our
mission -- mitigation, preparedness and response and recovery.
Organizations help drive a mission, but it's people who make
organizations work. That's why this next rule is especially important in
leading change in government.
Rule 4. Work with your career employees.
I'm a baseball fan.
Every baseball fan knows that when you've got a great lineup that's
working hard but losing games, you don't blame the players.
You blame the manager. The manager is responsible for directing their
skills toward a clear goal.
That's what FEMA was like when I arrived. We had terrific people who
weren't producing because they weren't being led. And it wasn't their
More than anyone else, they wanted to make FEMA the best agency it
could possibly be.
I was convinced that more than anyone else, our career employees knew
how to make change occur.
From day one, I put FEMA's career employees in the driver's seat.
And no matter where in government you work, career employees are your
most valuable assets.
As any good businessperson will tell you, if you want the full value
out of any asset, you have to invest in it. Which brings me to:
Rule 5. Give your employees the tools to do their jobs.
These days, the most important tool for any job is information. And
that makes information technology an essential tool for leading
Technology today lets you provide quick, rapid service.
Early on, we started using 800 numbers to give our customers easier
access to our services.
It's also critical to use technology in-house.
FEMA used to have an alphabet soup of information systems. Just about
every program had one.
When a need arose, an information system was developed to handle
The problem was, they couldn't talk to each other.
People didn't have the benefit of knowing what the person next door did
-- even if that information would help them to serve the customer
That's why part of our reorganization included establishing a
directorate for information technology.
Its biggest project has been developing and testing NEMIS, our
agency-wide information system.
And speaking of information:
Rule 6. Communicate your message.
Let me say it again. Communicate your message.
If you expect people to buy into change, you have to tell them exactly
why you're doing it and exactly how.
You have to say it quickly, you have to say it concisely, and you have
to say it repeatedly.
At FEMA, we established clear lines of both internal and external
Two internal publications -- the Director's Weekly Report and The Rumor
Mill -- provide a direct link between my office and every employee's
They know exactly what I expect and what we're doing.
Our most important external initiative is Project Impact, our
nationwide effort to make whole communities resistant to disasters.
For Project Impact, we enlisted the help of outside professionals to
develop and communicate a clear, concise message.
Speaking of clear communication with people outside your agency:
Rule 7. Secure support from your constituents.
Let me give you a sure-fire method for failing at change.
And that's to tell other people what to do.
That won't work for two reasons. First, chances are people won't do
something if they don't believe in it.
Second, if you don't get an outside perspective, you're likely to be
wrong in the first place.
At FEMA, our most important constituents are our state and local
We might be leading change, but they're the ones who have to implement
That's why I don't make major decisions that affect our state and local
partners without talking with them first.
We also have a good relationship with the Congress.
Just talking with your constituents isn't nearly enough. My next rule
-- also the last -- may be the most important.
Rule 8. Build partnerships.
It doesn't matter what your business is -- whether it's public or
private sector, national, state or local -- you can't succeed alone.
If you want to lead change, you have to reach out.
That's why we made Project Impact a true partnership involving
businesses, state and local governments, civic groups and more.
Because they are partners, they're more committed. Many are even
contributing their own resources.
This partnership model is the reason Project Impact has been so
successful -- and it's one we apply to everything we do.
Each of these lessons work for any agency in government.
I'm convinced, in fact, that they're solid advice for just about any
kind of organization you seek to change.
But I'm also convinced of this: The most important rules about change
are the ones you discover.
So I think I'll close this speech where I started, with the most
important advice about change itself: Never say, "We've never done it that
way before." Thank you.
Updated: July 11, 2000
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