Federal Emergency Management Agency

Recommendations and Actions

FEMA04: Develop a Skilled Management Team Among Political Appointees and Career Staff


The Federal Emergency Management Administration's (FEMA's) success in implementing its new, all-hazards mission will require the commitment of capable and committed leaders. FEMA has been criticized in the past for a lack of leadership--a deficiency linked to the number and quality of political appointments, the lack of a well- prepared corps of career executive managers, and inadequate integration of the two groups into a cohesive leadership team.[1] FEMA needs to continue steps underway to address these management problems, which were addressed in a recent study by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) and confirmed in staff interviews.

FEMA has eight posts designated to be filled by presidential appointees subject to Senate confirmation. The agency director faces the challenge of molding a coordinated executive team from political appointees who get their jobs through an independent appointment process involving five separate Senate committees. For years, FEMA has suffered as political appointees have defended their own directorates (e.g., the U.S. Fire Administration, State and Local Programs and Support, National Preparedness, and the Federal Insurance Administration) from the agency head's efforts to shape FEMA as a whole.[2]

There are 14 other senior political positions in the agency, jobs that can be filled without the use of competitive civil service procedures. Its critics in the past have viewed the agency as a political dumping ground. Pending legislation would convert most of FEMA's political positions into career slots.[3]

In 1989, the National Commission on the Public Service, known as the Volcker Commission, noted that a large number of political appointees can actually weaken political control because of problems in selecting and retaining experienced political sub-cabinet officers.[4] To improve recruitments for political positions, the Volcker Commission recommended that criteria be developed for qualifications of political nominees. It suggested that these criteria include managerial and substantive experience, as well as loyalty to and philosophical compatibility with the President.[5]

Few would argue that effective recruitment needs to be followed by appropriate on-the-job training, but NAPA also noted deficiencies in developmental activities for both political and career executives in FEMA. Career paths for civil servants have been confined to individual subunits, contributing to a parochialism within work groups and lack of overall agency cohesion.

Staff interviews support the need for better planning for executive development activities, and for technical and cross-program training. The agency's Executive Resources Board is a developing a vision statement describing what its career leaders should be like; it is also identifying ways in which to ensure that leadership development opportunities are not overlooked in the press of the agency's daily business.[6]

Before the current director arrived at FEMA, the acting director--a career civil servant who has worked in several directorates--dispatched four senior executives from the headquarters office to serve on temporary assignments as regional directors. The participants have praised this move as a step that should be repeated, with similar exchanges throughout the ranks and between FEMA directorates. Such cross-training develops the broad experience and working relationships needed to manage successfully FEMA's array of programs and interagency contacts.

Political appointees would also benefit from on-the-job preparation for their tasks.[7] Orientation programs and performance agreements can help strengthen their understanding and implementation of the agency's mission.

FEMA also needs to improve the working relationship between its political and career staffs as part of its developmental efforts. In a discussion of leadership, the Volcker Commission observed that the quality of the career-political relationship is more important to government efficiency and effectiveness than who fills the respective positions.[8]

Political appointees must articulate their goals to the career staff and enlist the aid of the career members of the Senior Executive Service in the execution of their plans. Career personnel must be willing to participate as members of the agency team with the political leadership to make these plans succeed. The FEMA director can lead by ensuring that rewards for each group are linked to the success of the working relationship between political and career employees within and across agency directorates.


1. Through organizational restructuring and reordering of priorities, all agency directorates should be responsible to the Director for fulfilling the primary agency mission of disaster response.

Current directorate organization emphasizes separate activities at the expense of FEMA's overall mission. Political appointees at the top of those units have, in the past, focused on those separate activities, and have related and responded to different congressional committees with jurisdiction over those areas. Charging all appointees with a common agency mission is an essential first step in the development of the effective, all-hazards emergency management organization that FEMA seeks to become.

2. The director of FEMA should select and develop capable and cohesive executive leaders for the agency.

The new director has expressed his intent to examine FEMA's mission and organization.[9] This should include the identification and implementation of technical and managerial selection criteria for political appointments. The agency is currently developing an orientation program for incoming regional administrators, and should develop a similar program for other political appointees. These and other steps, such as performance plans that hold executives responsible for implementing the mission articulated by the director, would strengthen the cohesiveness of FEMA's leadership.

3. The director of FEMA should institute a staff career development program.

FEMA should implement a program of career development that gives staff the technical skills and broad experience needed to ensure the agency's success in managing its complex network of intergovernmental responsibilities. Staff at all levels should expect to be moved between headquarters and field posts and across functions for career development purposes.

FEMA should update its training needs assessment and factor agency needs into development plans for employees. The agency should use those provisions of the Intergovernmental Personnel Act that authorize job rotations in state and local governments and universities during federal career service. Exchanges with state and local emergency managers and across FEMA directorates will build skills and working relationships necessary for the implementation of FEMA's comprehensive emergency management mission.


Investments in FEMA's leadership should improve the agency's effectiveness in meeting the goals for which it was created in 1979.

Fiscal Impact

The purpose of these recommendations is to make FEMA better able to accomplish its mission. Professionalism in the executive ranks would increase effectiveness of agency operations and potentially improve responses to disasters, with resulting savings that cannot be estimated at this time.


1. Odeen, Philip A., Panel Chair, National Academy of Public Administration, Coping with Catastrophe: Building an Emergency Management System to Meet People's Needs in Natural and Man-made Disasters (Washington, D.C., February 1993), pp. 48-50.

2. The Volcker Commission recommended delegation of recruitment of noncareer Senior Executive Service and Schedule C appointments to department heads. See National Commission on Public Service (NCPS), "Politics and Performance: Strengthening the Executive Leadership System," in Leadership for America: Rebuilding the Public Service (Washington, D.C., 1989), p. 184.

3. S. 995, The Federal Disaster Preparedness and Response Act of 1993, introduced by Senator Barbara Mikulski on May 20, 1993.

4. NCPS, "Politics and Performance," pp. 168-174. See also National Academy of Public Administration, Leadership in Jeopardy: The Fraying of the Presidential Appointments System, The Final Report of the Presidential Appointee Project (Washington, D.C., 1985).

5. National Commission on the Public Service,"Politics and Performance," p. 180.

6. FEMA has conducted training needs assessments in the past and has used a skill matrix in planning developmental assignments for its emergency management career intern program. Resources are available for staff development planning. For example, see Siegel, Gilbert B., "Human Resource Development for Emergency Management," Public Administration Review, vol. 45, special issue (January 1985), pp. 107-117.

7. Pfiffner, James P., "Strangers in a Strange Land: Orienting New Presidential Appointees," in G. Calvin Mackenzie, ed., The In-and- Outers (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), pp. 141-155; and NCPS, "Politics and Performance," p. 186.

8. NCPS, "Politics and Performance," p. 167.

9. See U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Armed Services, Subcommittee on Nuclear Deterrence, Arms Control, and Defense Intelligence, Oral Statement of James Lee Witt, Director, FEMA, May 25, 1993.

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