During her testimony at the House Homeland Security Committee recently Secretary Janet Napolitano was asked for her opinion on the removal of FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security. She responded with a slight side-step and then an honest answer – “leadership and operations” – to the more important question. The more important question being: “How can FEMA be successful at helping disaster victims?”

Recently, after addressing employees at FEMA, Secretary Janet Napolitano bluntly stated that whether FEMA should stay in the Department of Homeland Security is the “wrong question”. (See CQ Homeland Security, February 4, 2009)  And then labeled it an inside the beltway debate. But the headline should have read “Napolitano gets it”. The most significant news from this event should have been that DHS’ new leader understands what is important in the world of emergency response.

While simmering beneath the surface since the inception of DHS, this debate over FEMA’s location bubbled over recently when raised publicly by the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. The congressional tug-of-war that continues over jurisdiction paralyzes DHS with organizational uncertainty. Until the agency settles and becomes familiar with an established organizational chart, it will not effectively and efficiently serve the American people. And this goes to the Secretary’s point.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, I remember reading a story about a Texas woman who rode out the storm in her home. When she emerged from the debris, she took one look around and wondered aloud where FEMA was. No one outside of D.C. really cares if FEMA is housed inside DHS or exists as an independent agency. What they want, and need, is a timely response. They want to know their governments are there to help them after a catastrophe.

During my three years at DHS I witnessed first hand the coordination facilitated by having the Coast Guard, Transportation Security Administration, Customs & Border Patrol and the other agencies living together under one roof. The component heads met at least once a month so they became familiar with one another, and thus, respectful of one another.

The Secretary and DHS headquarters was able to marshal the assets of the agencies during an event so everyone knew their place and where to go. If there were gaps folks pitched in and finger-pointing was rare. During times of need TSA’s Administrator could pick up the phone and ask for help from the Coast Guard Commandant or CBP’s Commissioner without explaining who he was or jumping through bureaucratic hoops to get immediate help. During Ike, TSA was there to help man PODs for FEMA so that people in need of food and water could get it and weren’t standing in front of a trailer full of supplies waiting for the government to show up.

Building these internal relationships was vital to FEMA’s recent responses to hurricanes, wildfires and ice storms. It never ceased to amaze me to see federal agencies when asked for help shun one another or claim “that isn’t my job” (my personal favorite to cause my head to explode). Without familiarity and relationships, organizational accountability, and a strong leader federal, agencies aren’t likely to work willingly with one another.

The DHS IG, Richard Skinner, uses these examples of DHS components working together in his report “FEMA: In or Out?”. It is a worthwhile read for those interested in the debate. IG Skinner concluded that FEMA’s success depends, in part, on stability. His other conclusion for success is leadership. Based on the Secretary’s reaction to the debate, doubters should be reassured that the leadership element of the equation has been solved. However this Congress decides to organize DHS having a leader asking the right questions and avoiding the beltway traps goes a long way in making the federal government, the entire federal government, better at serving people in need.

Jeffrey Sural, who currently serves as counsel in the Legislative & Public Policy Group at Alston & Bird, LLP, is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Office of Legislative Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security.

Jeff Sural serves as counsel in the Legislative & Public Policy Group at Alston & Bird, LLP. He will focus his practice on homeland security and transportation matters on Capitol Hill and in federal government agencies. Read More