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FEMA’S Failure and the Catastrophe of Our Federal Government

While the storm called Barry spared New Orleans as it threatened the Gulf Coast this weekend, I was again reminded of the growing number of climate-induced extreme weather events hitting our country. More people live in the pathway of destruction of storms that are wetter, longer-lasting and more intense than ever. You might think that even if someone did not understand climate change and its impact, the growing number of weather catastrophes would stimulate the development of enhanced emergency response and reconstruction capacities. Not in Donald’s Trump disaster of a federal government. Instead of building emergency response capacity, his team is dismantling them. As Christopher Flavelle observed in this week’s New York Times:

“Three years of crushing natural disasters have left the Federal Emergency Management Agency with even fewer staff available than usual, potentially straining the agency’s ability to help victims of Tropical Storm Barry. Less than one-quarter of FEMA’s trained disaster workforce of 13,654 people is available to be deployed to Barry or any other emergency, agency documents show, with the rest either already deployed elsewhere or otherwise unavailable. That’s down from 34 percent of staff who were available at this point in 2018, and 55 percent two years ago.”

The decline in federal capacity is not new and did not start with Donald Trump. He is simply taking a bad situation and making it worse. The deterioration began under Ronald Reagan who declared the federal government to be a problem. To conservatives, the best government is the least government. Government deconstruction continued with the Gingrich revolution and Tea Party attempts to cut the government by “starving the beast” of resources. One response to the cuts were efforts under President Clinton to “reinvent government” and learn to “do more with less”. That had a positive if temporary effect but didn’t take root in the federal government. There was little question that the conservative critique had merit and that many federal agencies were bloated, underperforming bureaucracies. But today, after four decades of attacks, contracting out, and ideology in place of management, the federal government has become the problem Ronald Reagan thought he saw in 1980. While some federal agencies remain fat and lazy, other federal units are malnourished and incapable of administering public policy. Take a look at the way immigrant children and families are cared for at our southern border if you’d like to see a textbook case of an incompetent, overwhelmed federal agency. And of course, who can forget FEMA and Hurricane Katrina.

If you are interested in this topic, I suggest you read my NYU colleague Paul Light’s new book: A Government Ill Executed: The Decline of the Federal Service and How to Reverse It. Professor Light analyzes how we got into this mess and how we might get out of it. I only hope that by the time we get to work on rebuilding our federal government, the incompetence of the current team doesn’t make the reclamation task impossible.

Part of the problem is that many federal agencies are leaderless. A review of Trump’s top advisors finds an Acting Chief of Staff, Acting Defense Secretary, Acting Homeland Security Chief, Acting Secretary of Interior, and soon Acting Labor Secretary. Earlier this year, Amanda Becker of Reuters reported that Trump liked the idea of having acting agency chiefs. According to Becker:

“U.S. President Donald Trump said on Sunday he was in no hurry to find permanent replacements for one-quarter of his Cabinet currently serving in an acting capacity because it gives him “more flexibility.” “I am in no hurry,” Trump told reporters as he departed for Camp David, the U.S. presidential retreat, for meetings on the partial government shutdown. About one-fourth of the U.S. government has been shuttered for more than two weeks and about 800,000 government workers have been either furloughed or working without pay. “I like acting. It gives me more flexibility. Do you understand that? I like acting. So, we have a few that are acting. We have a great, great Cabinet,” Trump said. He did not elaborate on why they give him more flexibility.”

Sadly, this gives you insight into this president’s approach to public administration and management generally. He is mainly concerned with his own influence on agency policy and in his image of being in control of public policy. The actual operations of the organization: its capacity, morale, and ability to get work done is a far lower priority for President Trump. Given the number of his own bankruptcies and private business failures, this is far from surprising. This is a guy who somehow lost money running a casino, so poor FEMA doesn’t have a chance. Trump’s best-known management principle is “you’re fired”; It’s clear that he never considers the impact of dismissals on organizational morale and capacity.

To Trump, management is about deals that provide you with leverage over your partners and creating an image that people will pay for. His approach to politics and governance is no different than his creation of the Trump “brand”. Trump’s brand is all about marble and gold lobbies, glamour and glitz. The political brand is anti-immigrant, anti-media, nativist, protectionist and anti-elite. Somehow, despite his own wealth he manages to convey an every-man persona. His brilliance is in self-promotion and brand creation. That requires extreme vigilance in defending the image no matter what the reality is. So, if a British diplomat calls you incompetent, that message must be delegitimized, and the diplomat must be sent packing. If immigrants are living in squalid conditions on the border, a model facility must be set up and a visible tour of that facility must be promoted. Reality is less important than spin and image. If the president says his crowd is “huge” and the biggest ever, then information is created to back up that assertion.

But disasters are too big, and the misery is too well-distributed to hide. People with Trump flags on their homes are left on the street. People wearing red MAGA hats sit in the same shelters as folks wearing Obama “Hope” tee-shirts. Catastrophe is hard to spin. So, it is even more shocking that this administration would allow FEMA to collapse. But it is also difficult to improve performance if you do not accurately measure it and report those data to management. If Trump doesn’t like a fact, he calls it fake news and pretends it is not real.

The impact of all this is to drive the most talented staff from the federal government and to make it difficult for the government to attract young people. According to Michael Wald of

“In 2017, turnover among Federal employees increased due to higher numbers of workers choosing to voluntarily resign their positions. The first year of the Trump administration saw 468,000 employees leave the Federal government resulting in a turnover rate of 16.7%, up from 16.4% in 2016, according to data obtained from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of that number, 189,000 workers quit the government in 2017, up from 162,000 in 2016. The Federal government’s quit rate reached 6.7% in 2017 compared to 5.8% in 2016 and 5.4% in 2015.”

While turnover is only up slightly, morale declines are more significant. According to the Partnership for Public Service’s Annual Survey of federal government employee engagement:

“The 2018 Best Places to Work rankings, based on the views of more than 847,000 civil servants from 488 federal organizations, present a tale of two governments—one comprising 59.1 percent of federal agencies where employee engagement scores declined and the other where only 39.6 percent registered increases and 1.3 percent stayed the same. These results represent a stark contrast to the previous three years when more than 70 percent of federal organizations experienced gains in how employees viewed their jobs and workplaces.”

As we approach a hurricane season that follows a difficult, wet spring of storms and flooding, we have reason to question the competence and readiness of the federal government after over two years of amateurish, chaotic and dominantly political presidential leadership. The aim of all first-term presidents is to win reelection. That is why Barack Obama held off on his Clean Power Plan until after he was safely past the politics of 2012. But Donald Trump’s only concern with actually governing is to make sure that his policies are obeyed, and his rhetoric resonates with his political base. Performance is a by-product of his presidency, far from its focus.

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Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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3 years ago

read “Superstorm of Chaos: FEMA Disaster Diary” about FEMA’s dysfunction.