Team Rubicon members Crysty Skevingcon and Gary Keil cleans out a survivor’s home impacted by flooding on May 16, 2017. (Steve Zumwalt/FEMA)

PERSPECTIVE: FEMA’s New Strategic Plan Talks to ‘Us’

Whenever a strategic plan is released, most people who belong to the issuing organization quickly look for how the plan is going to affect their job. Most of time as they are thumbing their way through the document, they are wondering to themselves, “Are we going to have a reorganization? How will the organizational boxes be moved around this time? What will change about our mission?”

By that metric, I think members of the FEMA team will find themselves as surprised by the agency’s newly released strategic plan as I was when I first read it. By several measures, it is not the typical government agency strategic plan – most notably because of whom this strategic plan actually speaks to and the guidance it shares with those audiences.

Instead of singularly speaking to the agency’s employees (as most government strategic plans do), the new FEMA Strategic Plan speaks to the larger American public.

Remarkably devoid of the government-ese/techno-babble that so permeates most government planning documents, the 2018-2022 FEMA Strategic Plan is almost as conversational as it is clear and straightforward. It is also very much a national plan as it says very clearly in its “Foundations for the Strategic Plan” section: “Whole community and shared responsibility, across all layers of government and down to the individual, is also a hallmark of this Strategic Plan.”

In short, FEMA has declared that this is a plan for all of us – it’s not just theirs.

As customer-centric as the tone of the strategic plan may be, the theme of “shared responsibility” echoes throughout the document. FEMA is always willing and driven to fulfill its charter to coordinate disaster response and recovery efforts for the country, but it is being more than honest when it truthfully declares that it cannot do these complex and all-encompassing things on its own. Communities, neighborhoods, regions, businesses, organizations, families and individuals must play an active role and do their part as well. They have to own emergency management, too.

Some people will read the document and brand “shared responsibility” as a buck-passing, “motherhood and apple pie,” or “no duh” statement. But in all the years since 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and all the Biblical-like natural disasters of last year (e.g., Harvey/Houston, Maria/Puerto Rico, California wildfires), FEMA has been increasingly widening its arms and motioning for all of us – as a nation – to take on this burden with them.

This is a national mission they are calling us to fulfill and this document makes that declaration loud and clear. If you pick this plan up and read it, you’ll find a place and a role you should be prepared to execute.

The front cover may brand the document as “2018-2022 Strategic Plan, Federal Emergency Management Agency,” but make no mistake: FEMA Administrator Brock Long and his leadership team are declaring this America’s National Plan for Bad Day Investment, Response and Readiness.

That’s a different strategic plan than what we are used to consuming. Given previously issued plans, we’ve been conditioned to look for new wire diagrams and detailed program realignments on the pages. Those things may still come about as FEMA puts this plan into action, but the candor and conversation that the document starts are as refreshing as they are empowering.

The plan declares that we need incentive investments to better reduce risk and disaster costs at all levels and we need to be more aggressive in closing the insurance gaps, all while building a more adaptable workforce to respond to incidents and improving the resiliency of commodity distribution and communications structures.

The plan’s declared goal to “reduce the complexity of FEMA” will no doubt be embraced with a chorus of “Amen!” and “Alleluia!” I expect those cries will come loudest from anyone inside and outside of the FEMA organization who has ever tried to navigate an issue through its often redundant and cumbersome bureaucracy.

After enduring what can only be described as the “Job Initiation Summer of Hell” last year, I can almost hear Brock Long saying to his fellow FEMA teammates, “Guys. The disasters we deal with are tough enough. Our response, programs and processes should not make our work harder.”

This is where FEMA’s Strategic Plan presents real opportunity for the organization to fundamentally transform how it operates and does business with its partners and stakeholders. While FEMA has always collected data to chronicle its work and for use for in its planning purposes, the agency has not always used those resources to their full potential. Today, organizations big and small can leverage data to drive better and more informed decision-making, improve reporting and enhance operational efficiencies across the board.

As detailed in the plan, “Improving FEMA’s analytics capabilities will enable the use of data-driven approaches to identify and address Agency-wide inefficiencies and risks.” Such a direction and investment by FEMA not only presents a huge opportunity for streamlining and modernizing the grants and disaster assistance improvement programs that the agency administers. It also enables enhanced performance monitoring on agency programs, as well as better protection of disaster victims and taxpayer dollars from fraud, identity theft, delayed access to necessary resources or other abuses.

These same solution sets – data, analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, etc. – all provide limitless capabilities to help emergency managers, policy makers, community leaders, citizens and more to better understand risk in all its forms. As an “all hazards” agency, FEMA is charged with being America’s point for readiness and response to those known and unknown hazards. Proactively applying data, analytics and other emerging technology-driven solutions can better prepare America’s readiness and response. That is an intrinsic part of FEMA’s stewardship mission that can made even stronger with these types of innovations and solutions.

No organization – especially FEMA – can afford to exist in a “culture of wait” if it wants to drive culture change. That’s what a national “culture of preparedness” requires.

As FEMA administrator, Brock Long’s challenge will be pushing the organization as well its “shared responsibility” partners to not only embrace these new solutions, but encourage them to apply the newly revealed insights and opportunities they deliver. When that happens, all of us with shared responsibilities can fulfill our preparedness mission assignments even better.

That challenge and transformation may be bigger than some of the storms Administrator Long has encountered in his nearly first full year in the job.  But now that he’s shared his plan with us, we can help him and the rest of FEMA fulfill their mission to all of us. That’s our shared responsibility, too.

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Rich Cooper is Editor-at-Large for HSToday. A former senior member of DHS’ Private Sector Office (PSO), Cooper has been a frequent writer and contributor to numerous media outlets. He is Vice President for Strategic Communications & Outreach for the Space Foundation and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. Cooper is also a former Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute and has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, SAS and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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