Holding the Government Accountable

Will we heed the lessons of Katrina?

For Hurricane Katrina's one-year anniversary, President George W. Bush issued an Executive Order designed to improve federal government assistance for disaster victims. The Executive Order establishes an interagency "Task Force on Disaster Assistance Coordination" that will develop a plan by March 1, 2007 "to streamline and otherwise improve the delivery of Federal disaster assistance."

Among the items to be included in the plan are an inventory and assessment of effectiveness of Federal disaster assistance programs; a centralized application process for Federal disaster assistance; a centralized and continuously updated clearinghouse from which disaster victims may obtain information regarding Federal disaster assistance and State and local government and private sector sources of disaster assistance; and stronger controls to prevent improper payments and other forms of fraud, waste, and abuse. The Executive Order also requires that the Task Force's Plan's recommendations include a process for "phased" implementation by December 31, 2008.

While elements like controls to prevent waste and a thorough appraisal of Federal disaster assistance programs are certainly laudable, the Task Force, as designed by the Executive Order, is problematic. The Executive Order names fifteen member positions specifically, but surprisingly, no one from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is a member. Despite a plethora of reports examining FEMA's key role as the agency primarily responsible for managing the federal response to Katrina, there is no mention of FEMA at all in the Executive Order. Without FEMA, the agency with the most experience to contribute, it seems that the Task Force is missing an instrumental player to design a realistic and effective plan that will truly improve the federal response to catastrophic disasters. As the National Response Plan (NRP), FEMA is one of the executive agents for NRP management and maintenance. This oversight could potentially exacerbate the communication and implementation problems the federal government has experienced in all of its past disaster response activities.

On August 28, 2006, POGO released its own Katrina report, "Federal Contracting: Lessons Learned from Hurricane Katrina." Like the President's Executive Order, POGO stressed the need for the federal government to learn the lessons of past disasters. The report also compiles a comprehensive analysis of contracting problems found in Katrina-related federal reports, as well as recommendations to address those problems.