FEMA and the taking of “responsibility”

Armchair Generalist hits the nail on the head in this post today, and a previous post of his from September 7.

If the resignation of Michael Brown as FEMA head is the end of the accountability process, rather than its start, we will never get around to the really serious questions that need to be asked about whether the US government is properly equipped to handle major disasters, or whether we need a serious rethink about our institutions and organizations responsible for these tasks.

It is very easy to jump on Brown, who clearly had minimal qualifications for the post. But the bureaucratic reorganization under DHS meant that the head of FEMA takes orders from the Homeland Security Secretary, currently Michael Chertoff. And of course, he is responsible to the President.

Now, I know Bush has taken “responsibilty.” But what does that mean? Responsibility, like leadership itself, is not words, it’s actions and consequences. Obviously he is not going to resign, and porobably neither is Chertoff (resignation is the usual meaning of taking “responsibility” in the highest levels of government in parliamentary systems), but a good place to start might be for Bush to call off his allies in Congress who are blocking the formation of an independent commission to investigate the response to Hurricane Katrina.

It is about accountability, and being accountable for decisions made and not made is how government officials take responsibility. It is also through the process of holding officials accountable for past actions that we have dicussions about reorganization of the responsible bureaucracies that might save lives in the future.

0 thoughts on “FEMA and the taking of “responsibility”

  1. As a general rule, I like our nifty electoral system and, unlike Woodrow Wilson in Congressional Government, prefer it over a parliamentary system.

    But this is one of those cases where I would like to see the possibility of a vote of no confidence with a possible new election. As you point out, it is one thing to state responsibility (a good thing no doubt), but the only way I think anyone will be truly accountable is if they have to be electorally accountable. Given that this is Bush’s second and final term, he will have no repercussions electorally. Obviously, House members and some Senators will have to provide answers to the question of whether the goverment has, or even should be given, sufficient power/authority in major disasters.

    What is its role? What is its proper role in a Federal government? One could easily argue that this is a time for the use of Locke’s Federative power, but do we think along those lines?

    One thing is certain…the lack of clarity in this crisis made things worse.

    If the State knew it was “primarily” responsible, it would have behaved differently.

    If private organizations were to be primary responders, the same, and the same would be true if the Federal government was the fully acknowledged primary power in this situation.

    I know many have argued that the response time was faster in this crisis than in others, but the damage and need was also greater and so was the lack of coordination.

    I think you are right to point out the need to decide these questions fully. Vagueries in authority are nice in times of non-necessity, but they make poor bedfellows in times of need.

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