A review by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) has found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) followed declaration request policies but could improve its records management.
A disaster declaration provides access to a wide range of Federal assistance programs for individuals and public infrastructure. FEMA uses the declaration request process to validate the need for Federal assistance to help communities respond to and recover from a disaster when local, state, territorial, and tribal government resources are overwhelmed. From January 2017 to July 2020, the total obligated funding exceeded $113.6 billion for 572 approved disaster declarations. Other than those related to COVID-19, most of these disaster declarations were for severe storms and wildfires.
According to OIG, FEMA “consistently followed Federal laws, regulations, and its own policies and procedures when responding to disaster declaration requests from states, territories, and tribes, and making recommendations to the President”.
The watchdog’s review found that, in most cases, FEMA properly maintained its declaration request files, but 9 of 51 declaration request files had one or more missing records. These files did not include a senior official’s decision rationale for the official’s recommendation when that decision differed from regional recommendations or program offices’ inputs, or were missing some relevant records. FEMA eventually found some of the missing records. OIG attributed the missing information to FEMA “not ensuring it captured and maintained senior officials’ rationale for their decisions in the official files, and validated the accuracy and completeness of files, in accordance with its policies and procedures”.
During OIG’s review, a FEMA official acknowledged that the agency does not normally capture all senior officials’ analysis in declaration request files in which differing regional recommendations and program offices’ inputs exist.
OIG determined that improvements in records management policies and procedures could enhance transparency, organizational accountability, and public trust, as well as FEMA’s ability to respond to inquiries about its recommendations.
To this end, it has recommended that FEMA integrate component records management policy into program-specific declarations guidance to specify the records that should be created and maintained in official declaration request files.
FEMA agreed and will publish a Declarations Process Guide, which will include instructions for documenting senior decision-making rationale when the regional offices’ and program offices’ recommendations differ. The agency also pointed to the new Automated Declarations Solution system that it says will capture the rationale, which will enhance overall efficiency and transparency of the declarations process.
OIG also called for component records management policies to be adhered to both at Headquarters and Regional offices to validate that each declaration request package is accurate, complete, and in compliance with Federal regulations.
FEMA agreed and expects to complete all actions by June 30, 2022.