Reinventing Public Administration: A Case Study of the Federal Emergency Management Agency

By Schneider, Saundra K. | Public Administration Quarterly, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Reinventing Public Administration: A Case Study of the Federal Emergency Management Agency


Schneider, Saundra K., Public Administration Quarterly


ABSTRACT

This study examines the recent efforts to "reinvent" the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It focuses on the organizational and management changes that have taken place within FEMA over the last four years and places these changes within the broader context of the governmental approach to disaster relief as well as the reinventing government movement. This analysis demonstrates that management reforms within FEMA have had a positive impact on the agency's internal organization and operations. More importantly, it shows that the reinvention of FEMA has also improved the functioning of the nation's entire emergency management system.

INTRODUCTION

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) occupies a key position in the nation's disaster relief system. FEMA is responsible for mobilizing the resources of the federal government when a major natural disaster strikes. It also serves as the chief coordinator of emergency relief efforts across levels of government as well as between the public and private sectors. FEMA sits at the "top" of the entire intergovernmental relief system in the United States and, therefore, its actions can have a profound impact on the government's ability to respond to large-scale disasters in a timely and effective way.

Over the last ten years, FEMA's role in the nation's disaster relief system has received a great deal of attention. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, its operations were severely criticized. The agency seemed to be unable (or unwilling) to mobilize an effective response to several large-scale natural disasters--e.g., Hurricane Hugo, the Loma Prieta earthquake, and Hurricane Andrew. FEMA's actions (or inactions) in these situations contributed to the perception of government nonresponsiveness, incompetence, and failure during major disaster situations. This, in turn, led to demands for reform of the overall response system.

This study focuses on the recent efforts to "reinvent" FEMA and begins by describing the history of governmental involvement in natural disaster situations and the role of FEMA in the current governmental response system. Next, it looks directly at the management reforms that have taken place within FEMA over the last four years and ties these changes to broader efforts to transform and reinvent the public sector. Then, it compares FEMA's disaster assistance record before and after the agency's reinvention. This study shows that organizational and staffing changes have had a noticeable, positive impact on FEMA's internal operations and actions. More importantly, FEMA's transformation has had even broader consequences: it has improved the functioning of the nation's entire emergency management system.

INVOLVEMENT IN DISASTER ASSISTANCE

Public institutions in the United States have long been involved in providing assistance to the victims of natural catastrophes. In fact, even before the United States existed, public organizations played a critical role in helping those who were affected by major earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes. During this early period of governmental involvement in emergency relief, one feature stands out: disaster assistance was considered to be primarily a responsibility of local government (Bourgin, 1983; Popkin, 1990). When a natural catastrophe occurred, city and county officials were expected to help those in need.

State governments could be called in to help if local resources were exhausted. But, most state-level organizations were ill-- equipped, unprepared, and even unwilling to intervene (Stratton, 1989). Similar problems existed at the national level. Whenever events exceeded the capacities of subnational authorities, the federal government could be asked to step in and help. But, federal assistance was often uncertain, uncoordinated, and piecemeal (May, 1985). There were no general policies or guidelines to shape government intervention and it was never clear whether the federal government should or would intervene at all. …

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