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Reports by inspector generals carry a lot of weight in Washington.  They point out problems, inefficiencies and improper or illegal behaviors that go on in federal programs or by some of its employees or contractors.  While it’s often easy to point out faults, recommending solutions can often fall upon deaf ears especially when the remedy provider is the same party who is charged with keeping a watchful (and often investigative eye) on you.  That’s what makes the latest DHS IG offering so interesting.

In a February 11th memo to DHS Sec. Napolitano, IG Richard Skinner offers his office’s insight on one of the most debated questions in homeland security today – Should FEMA be removed from DHS to be a separate entity?

Unlike a lot of other federal reports and memos where ambiguity and “wiggle-room” are the rules, his answer is fairly clear and definitive – FEMA should remain part of DHS.He offers two primary reasons:

•    “It takes years for a complex organization to develop;” and,

•    “Success depends on leadership more than structure.”

Amen.

Stripping away the often emotional arguments and revisionist history of those who have called for FEMA’s restoration as an independent body, the IG’s report points out the evolutionary aspect of what is happening to FEMA and the interdependence its mission has to how we as a nation respond to emergencies be they small or large scale.  It further identifies the significant cost, confusion and upheaval that continued reorganization of FEMA and DHS would have on our homeland security abilities.

More than anything though, the IG’s memo highlights the one factor that is central to FEMA’s and any other organization’s success – LEADERSHIP.  If you have the right person(s) in charge, success is more than attainable – it can be achieved with dramatic results.

All too often, the de facto (and often knee-jerk) position on FEMA and the leadership issue is to point to its former Administrator Mike Brown and his efforts during Katrina.  Looking back nearly four years later, there are certainly things everyone would do differently, but Katrina was not just Mike Brown’s or FEMA’s fault.

It was the State of Louisiana’s fault.

It was the City of New Orleans fault, the surrounding Parishes fault and so on.

It was a shared failure on national, regional and individual levels across the board, but in our “gotcha” society we’re all looking for that one person or organization to tar and feather to make ourselves feel better rather than look deeper to recognize the full scale of responsibility and accountability and where it belongs.

FEMA has for too long been a football used to score political and media sound-bite points from all sides.  While the agency has provided plenty of ammunition to feed such behavior, too often these “players,” “arm-chair quarterbacks” and sideline “coaches” have ignored investing in the very things (employee and stakeholder training and development; revising the Stafford Act to address post 9/11 realities; having a semblance of patience, etc.) that can make all the difference in the endgame.

If we want to avoid future Katrina-like failures building the people capacities of FEMA, as well as state, local, NGO, private sector and citizens has to be a core foundation.  That starts with building a core of leaders across the board, establishing pre-existing relationships, allowing the organization and its capacities to evolve and strengthen and integrating those abilities with others who can contribute to response and recovery.  That’s as true for FEMA as it is for any other part of DHS or any other group in the public or private sectors.  You ultimately get out of the organization what you put into it.

The IG’s memo dictates a great recipe for success.  I hope Sec. Napolitano, the Congress, the rest of the Administration and the American public follow it before deciding on mixing (or messing with) it further.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More