Culture Change


In Recovery: Federal Emergency Management Agency

"Currently, FEMA is like a patient in triage," the National Academy of Public Administration wrote in early 1993. "The President and Congress must decide whether to treat it or let it die." [6]

Buffeted by criticism, its resources stretched by an unusual string of natural disasters, FEMA was an agency in serious peril when James Lee Witt arrived as its director in early 1993. Witt, who directed the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services under then-Governor Bill Clinton, took the criticism seriously and sprung into action.

Witt reached out to both his dispirited corps and outside critics. On his first day, he greeted each member of his headquarters staff as he or she arrived. Then, he began meeting with program heads and regional directors and bringing lower-level staff from across the country to Washington for training and discussions. [7] He encouraged input from individual employees--through inter-office mail, confidential visits, and brown-bag lunches--and from the unions.

On Capitol Hill, Witt testified before six committees and subcommittees in his first 100 days, and he met with the chairs and staffs of the key panels. He reached out to state and local governments as well as professional groups that play key roles in emergency management. And he began to initiate cooperative relationships with such agencies as the National Weather Service and U.S. Geological Survey.

Internally, Witt tackled the tough problems of reviving an agency. He issued his credo, which talks about the partnerships that FEMA needs to build before, during, and after a disaster strikes. "FEMA," it concludes, "is a Partnership of . . . People Helping People."[8] With broad employee involvement, Witt also launched an effort to rewrite FEMA's "mission" statement and give the agency its first "vision" statement, one designed to last for the next 50 years.

To encourage innovation, quality, and responsiveness to its customers, Witt declared all of FEMA to be a "reinvention lab." In addition, he sought suggestions for intra-FEMA "mini-labs"; the agency plans to approve about 10 of the 30 proposed.

In perhaps his biggest challenge, Witt launched an effort to reorganize FEMA in order to better serve disaster victims, reduce layers of supervision, empower employees, and realign resources to more effectively achieve FEMA's mission and the director's goals. The new organizational structure, which became effective in late 1993, integrated several previously separate functions into a new "all-hazards" program. In addition, it eliminated two layers of organization, cut the number of supervisors by 34 percent, lowered the supervisor-employee ratio from about 1:6 to 1:13, and increased the speed and responsiveness of services to disaster victims. After adopting the new structure, Witt appointed acting heads of his various "directorates" (mitigation, response and recovery operations, and so on) and ordered them to restructure their own internal operations.

Its structure redesigned, its employees energized, FEMA is now serving more disaster victims than ever before. But numbers are just, well, numbers. They don't tell you whether the people behind them are satisfied customers. FEMA has begun a two-pronged effort to find out. First, it is conducting focus groups with disaster victims and officials in states and counties, the Red Cross, and other relevant organizations in Los Angeles, Miami, the Midwest, and other places where disasters have recently hit. Second, it distributed 5,000 customer surveys to disaster victims. It evaluated the responses and incorporated the findings into FEMA's customer service plan.

Even positive responses to the surveys would not capture the culture change that has swept FEMA. To understand it, you have to look at its employees, many of whom performed heroically after the Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles, sacrificing their time and money to calm the victims, answer their queries, and find them food and shelter.

For instance, Raquel Nicholson, an employee in the Crenshaw Disaster Application Center, adopted the Inesa family. She and her colleagues shared their lunches with the hungry family and obtained donations of clothing, diapers, and other baby needs from a local church.

Phil Cogan worked 18- to 20-hour days developing and implementing the Recovery Channel and designing and supervising operation of the 140-person Joint Information Center in Pasadena, the largest such facility ever operated in connection with a U.S. disaster.

Anita Finnegan heard that a resident of a Los Angeles apartment building needed information about FEMA. During a visit she learned about Cecelia, a 38-year-old woman who was seriously disabled by severe medical problems. Though Cecelia's particular apartment was badly damaged, her building was ineligible for assistance. Finnegan first arranged for a reinspection of the unit, making Cecelia eligible for help. Then, she brought Cecelia to an Earthquake Service Center and an American Red Cross Service Center, helped to usher Cecelia into the Section 8 Housing Program, helped to find her a new apartment, and arranged for her to receive service from Meals on Wheels. She even put together for her a "care package" of shampoos, lotions, and soaps. Finnegan continues to visit Cecelia often.

FEMA's revival did not escape attention from the media or Congress. "Emergency Agency Praised for a Change, on Flooding," the New York Times reported, referring to FEMA's handling of the Midwest's 1993 floods. Similar praise followed FEMA's response to the Northridge earthquake. One member of Congress was impressed enough to withdraw his bill to abolish the agency.[9]


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