The Next FEMA

THE NEXT FEMA…. The Washington Post reported the other day that the incoming Obama administration has been scrutinizing the beleaguered Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and plans to give it a “facelift.”

It was a reminder that Obama, on top of the multiple global crises that will require his immediate attention, also happens to have an executive branch of government to fix. This goes well beyond addressing FEMA’s humiliating troubles — the new administration will have hundreds of senior-level agency jobs to fill in the coming weeks and months, and below that, hundreds of thousands of civil servants who will be retiring in the next few years. The staffing decisions will dictate whether and when dysfunctional agencies that have languished under Bush can get back on track.

In the new issue of the Washington Monthly, Harvard University’s John D. Donahue, an assistant secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, and Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, explain that most presidents haven’t spent much political capital on improving the federal government’s human capital. Obama doesn’t have that luxury.

No president in recent memory has come into office with so many and such varied crises to deal with — from two intractable ground wars to a possible global recession — plus an ambitious policy agenda of his own, including passing and (the hard part) implementing universal health care. The president-elect can be forgiven for not wanting to spend precious time, energy, and political capital on the thankless, glamour-free chore of upgrading the capacity of federal agencies. Few of his predecessors, after all, made performance improvement much of a priority. Obama didn’t break the federal government, and he has plenty of things he’d rather focus on than fixing it. Maybe it’s not fair, but it’s still a fact: if the president-elect waits until the rest of his agenda is well launched to worry about federal performance capacity, the rest of his agenda will never get off the ground.

Huge new federal responsibilities, stretched and sclerotic workforces, and fresh memories of the Bush administration’s operational failures have combined, we believe, to make top-flight management a political imperative for the incoming administration in a way it has not been for previous ones. To put it bluntly: even with brilliant policy ideas and flawless political instincts, Barack Obama’s administration is likely to fail if it doesn’t reverse the erosion in federal capacity.

Donahue and Stier make a compelling case, and offer the incoming administration a roadmap on how to make these key changes. Take a look.