Saturday, September 10, 2005

Hurricane Katrina, Disaster Relief, and Sociology 2

Well, one thought I had since last posting was about the structure of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). We've probably all encountered stories of the problems with disaster relief. Whether FEMA officials really screwed things up is immaterial for my purposes. All I want to do is point out that perhaps FEMA should be structured differently. The current structure (as far as I can tell from their web site) is a bureacuracy with characteristics like specialization, formal rules and procedures for most activities, and a heirarchy of authority, impersonality, and merit-based career advancement.

Bureaucracy is a bad word in America but these sorts of organizations have their place. What is their place? Well, a bureaucracy works fine in a situation where the social environment is stable and the tasks to be performed are repititive and routine. The Social Security Administration is a classic example. The population served is relatively stable. The means of disbursing funds does not change much. The specific programs don't change much. Annual economic fluctuations have minimal impact. There is no competition, as far as I know.

Coordinating and conducting disaster relief is a different proposition! One part of FEMA's mission is to (quoting from "effectively manage federal response and recovery efforts following any national incident", a job that calls for a looser sort of structure. Perhaps FEMA should use project teams empowered to make things happen in any particular disaster relief effort. This part of FEMA would work more like a consulting firm or engineering design firm and less like a classical bureaucracy trying that's struggling to cope with a crisis.


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