Disaster Assistance Workforce:

FEMA Could Enhance Human Capital Management and Training

GAO-12-538: Published: May 25, 2012. Publicly Released: Jun 1, 2012.

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What GAO Found

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has taken steps to enhance its management of the Disaster Assistance Employee (DAE) program, such as through the establishment of a credentialing program, the FEMA Qualification System (FQS); however, management controls and training could be strengthened. For example, FEMA does not monitor how the regions implement DAE policies and how DAEs implement disaster policies across regions to ensure consistency. FEMA’s Administrator noted that due to differences in how regions operate, it is problematic to deploy someone based in one region to another during a disaster. Establishing a mechanism to monitor both the regional implementation of DAE policies and procedures and DAE’s implementation of disaster policies could help provide FEMA with reasonable assurance that disaster assistance is conducted in accordance with policy and implemented consistently.

FEMA’s human capital controls could be strengthened. FEMA’s regional DAE managers are responsible for hiring DAEs, but FEMA has not established hiring criteria and has limited salary criteria. By establishing standardized criteria for making hiring and salary decisions, FEMA would be better positioned to hire people with requisite skills and better ensure consistency across regions. Likewise, FEMA’s performance appraisal system for DAEs is not consistent with internal control standards. FEMA does not have criteria for supervisors to assign DAEs satisfactory or unsatisfactory ratings. Thirteen of 16 regional DAE managers GAO interviewed stated that the appraisal process could be improved, such as implementing a rating scale instead of a pass/fail rating. FEMA officials noted that performance management is a critical component in DAE supervision and must be improved in fiscal year 2012. Establishing a more rigorous performance management system that includes criteria for given performance elements as well as guidance could help FEMA ensure that DAEs’ performance appraisals more accurately reflect performance and provide needed information to managers.

FEMA’s DAE training is not consistent with key attributes of effective training and development programs, such as a plan for training staff. FEMA does not have a plan to ensure DAEs receive necessary training such as FQS requirements. Further, 13 of 16 regional DAE managers GAO spoke to said that they would like more opportunities for DAEs to receive training. A plan to ensure that all DAEs have opportunities for training and completing FQS requirements with related milestones would provide FEMA with a roadmap and ensure accountability for qualifying DAEs under FQS. In addition, FEMA does not track how much of the Disaster Relief Fund is spent on training for DAEs. Developing a systematic process to track training costs could provide FEMA with information to help it determine whether it is allocating its resources effectively.

In an April 2012 memo, FEMA announced plans to transform the DAE program beginning in June 2012; however, this effort is still in the early stages and as a result, it is too soon to evaluate the effectiveness of FEMA’s planned actions.

Why GAO Did This Study

Since fiscal year 2007 FEMA has obligated $33 billion in disaster assistance payments. FEMA relies heavily upon its cadre of DAEs, a reserve workforce who interact with disaster survivors. GAO was asked to review the management and training of DAEs. Specifically, this report addresses the extent to which (1) FEMA has policies and procedures in place to govern the DAE program; (2) FEMA’s human capital controls over the DAE workforce are consistent with internal control standards; and (3) FEMA’s DAE training incorporates key attributes of effective training and development programs. In addition, GAO describes FEMA’s initiative to transform the DAE program announced in April 2012. GAO reviewed management documents such as program-specific and human capital-related guidance, interviewed FEMA officials, and conducted 16 focus group sessions with DAEs in four selected joint field offices chosen to provide geographic dispersion, among other factors. The results of the focus groups are not generalizable, but provide valuable insight into DAE experiences.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends, among other things, that FEMA establish a mechanism to monitor both its regions’ implementation of DAE policies and DAEs’ implementation of disaster policies; criteria for hiring and compensating DAEs; and a plan to train DAEs within a set time frame. DHS concurred with the recommendations.

For more information, contact William O. Jenkins at (202) 512-8757 or jenkinswo@gao.gov.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To help DHS improve the management of DAEs and build on some of the actions taken to date, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to establish a plan with milestones to ensure all DAEs have opportunities to participate in training and are qualified.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Open

    Comments: In fiscal year 2012, we reviewed and reported on FEMA's Disaster Assistance Employee (DAE) training. We reported, among other things, that FEMA did not have a plan to ensure that all DAEs received required training under the FEMA Qualification System (FQS), which would ensure accountability for qualifying DAEs. In May 2013, FEMA officials reported that FEMA's Incident Work Management Office maintained data tables with reporting capabilities that rank reservists (formerly referred to as DAEs) by position titles and courses required. FEMA needs to provide documentation showing this reporting capability.

    Recommendation: To help DHS improve the management of DAEs and build on some of the actions taken to date, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to establish a more rigorous performance appraisal system that includes criteria and guidance to serve as a basis for performance ratings, as well as how ratings could be used, and a process to address performance deficiencies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Open

    Comments: In fiscal year 2012, we reviewed and reported on actions FEMA took to appraise the performance of Disaster Assistance Employees (DAEs). We reported, among other things, that FEMA's performance appraisal system for DAEs was not consistent with internal control standards. Specifically, we found that FEMA's performance management system for DAEs was based on a performance appraisal form that was not consistent with internal control standards, which state that counseling should be candid and constructive. In May 2013, FEMA officials reported that its human capital office was developing an evaluation program for all FEMA positions, including reservists (formerly referred to as DAEs). To fully address this recommendation, FEMA needs to provide GAO documentation of its new evaluation program that includes a description of performance evaluations for reservists.

    Recommendation: To help DHS improve the management of DAEs and build on some of the actions taken to date, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to establish standardized criteria for hiring DAEs that include defined qualifications and skill sets to make hiring decisions and salary determinations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Open

    Comments: In fiscal year 2012, we reviewed and reported on FEMA's criteria for hiring Disaster Assistance Employees (DAEs). We reported, among other things, that FEMA had not established standardized hiring criteria for prospective DAEs, and FEMA headquarters provided limited guidance to regions on which to base DAE salary determinations. The lack of standardized guidance led to inconsistent hiring criteria and salary determinations for DAEs. In May 2013, FEMA officials reported that hiring criteria were included in vacancy announcements for reservist positions (formerly referred to as DAEs) and that hiring criteria are described in FEMA Qualification System (FQS) training guidelines. FEMA needs to provide documentation showing how FQS training guidelines are linked to hiring criteria as well as information demonstrating how salary determinations are standardized.

    Recommendation: To help DHS improve the management of DAEs and build on some of the actions taken to date, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to develop a plan with time frames and milestones for how it will better communicate policies and procedures and cadre-specific information to DAEs when they are not deployed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that FEMA did not have policies and procedures for how to communicate cadre-specific information to reservists (formerly referred to as Disaster Assistance Employees (DAEs)) when they are not deployed. Most reservists did not have access to cadre-specific information when not deployed, although FEMA had recently taken steps to increase communication. The majority of the cadre-specific information for reservists was housed on FEMA's internal website and was not accessible to reservists when they were not deployed. This was because when reservists were not deployed, they did not have access to their FEMA-issued equipment such as laptops, as well as their FEMA e-mail accounts. Reservists were therefore not able to access information directly. As a result, we recommended that FEMA develop a plan with time frames and milestones for how it would better communicate policies and procedures and cadre-specific information to reservists when they are not deployed. In June 2012, FEMA implemented a communication strategy with its reservist workforce that included video conferences, a web blog series, and a FEMA weekly bulletin sent to reservists' personal email addresses, among other things. These efforts were intended to communicate to reservists program updates, application processes for FEMA's new reservist program, program requirements, and hiring initiatives. Also, beginning June 24, 2012, FEMA began providing reservists a laptop and a cell phone that allows reservists to receive and initiate communication when they are not deployed. FEMA's communication techniques are consistent with our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help DHS improve the management of DAEs and build on some of the actions taken to date, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to establish a mechanism to monitor both its regions' implementation of DAE policies and procedures and DAEs' implementation of FEMA's disaster policies and procedures to ensure consistency.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that FEMA's decentralized management structure for Disaster Assistance Employees (DAEs) allowed for flexibility in responding to disasters. However, we determined that establishing a mechanism to ensure ongoing monitoring of regional implementation of DAE policies and procedures and DAEs' implementation of FEMA's disaster policies and procedures could assist management in ensuring that disaster assistance is conducted in accordance with policy and consistently applied across regions. As a result, we recommended that DHS direct the FEMA Administrator to establish a mechanism to monitor both its regions' implementation of DAE policies and procedures and DAEs' implementation of FEMA's disaster policies and procedures to ensure consistency. In October 2012, DHS reported that FEMA resolved the outstanding issues of inconsistent implementation of DAE policies by centralizing control over hiring, training, equipment, and deployment within a single headquarters-based office. FEMA documented its centralization process in a management directive that converted the DAE program to a reserve program that is managed through a centralized office. With this new management approach, FEMA is positioned to better monitor implementation of reserve program policies and procedures and ensure consistency.

    Recommendation: To help DHS improve the management of DAEs and build on some of the actions taken to date, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to establish timelines for development and dissemination of DAE cadre management guidance and revisions to FEMA Instruction 8600.1.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Open

    Comments: In fiscal year 2012, we reviewed and reported on actions that FEMA took to develop and disseminate management guidance for Disaster Assistance Employee (DAE) cadres. We reported, among other things, that FEMA had not yet developed guidance for cadre managers that outlined how they should manage DAEs in their cadre such as guidance for understanding and handling reserve pay and benefits, the deployment process, training procedures, and evaluation techniques. In May 2013, FEMA officials reported that guidance documents, including a reservist (formerly referred to as DAE) handbook that would include guidance on cadre management, remained in draft form. To fully address this recommendation, FEMA needs to provide GAO it final reservist handbook, including guidance for cadre managers.

    Recommendation: To help DHS improve the management of DAEs and build on some of the actions taken to date, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to develop a systematic process to track training costs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Open

    Comments: In fiscal year 2012, we reviewed and reported on FEMA's ability to track Disaster Assistance Employee (DAE) training costs. We reported, among other things, that FEMA did not track how much it spent on DAE training, which hindered FEMA's ability to plan for future training. In May 2013, FEMA officials reported that it was developing its employee qualification tracking system and was considering enhancements such as an automated functionality for tracking training costs. The officials also reported that ICQS was able to provide training cost estimates, but that this information was limited and does not have a routine reporting function. FEMA needs to provide us with an example of how ICQS can estimate training costs and/or documentation indicating that the automated training cost tracking enhancement was implemented.

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