14 September 2005

FEMA morale on decline for years hits new low.

Morale Among FEMA Workers, on the Decline for Years, Hits Nadir

Morale at the Federal Emergency Management Agency is probably as low as it can get.

Hurricane Katrina punched FEMA with a vengeance. The boss is gone, employees are working long hours and saddened by the loss of life and destruction, and the agency is on the verge of becoming a laughingstock.

"We're kind of at a tipping point," said Leo Bosner, president of the American Federation of Government Employees local at FEMA headquarters.

FEMA, of course, has been buffeted by controversy in the past, but Bosner said that this time the mood is different. "It's harder for people to hold their heads up now," he said.

John Gage, president of AFGE, said FEMA has suffered from "incompetent management," adding that "the thing that irritates me is that federal workers take a hit on this."

A senior career official at FEMA said employees are dedicated to helping disaster victims and willing to work with the party in charge but believe that political appointees should be approved for top agency jobs only if they can show extensive experience in crisis management and emergency preparedness.

In a 2003 survey of federal employees, FEMA ranked last among large agencies in worker satisfaction. Today, the Partnership for Public Service and the Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation released their list of "Best Places to Work" in the government, and the Department of Homeland Security, which absorbed FEMA, is next to last in the rankings -- No. 29 out of 30 large agencies. Congress's OMB ranked first.

Homeland Security employees gave low marks to their leaders in such areas as policies and practices, resources to get the job done and fair treatment, data used for the ranking show.

Related issues were aired in a study by the National Academy of Public Administration titled "Coping With Catastrophe." The study called for a "reduction of political appointees to a director and deputy director, development of a competent, professional career staff and appointment of a career executive director." The NAPA study said eliminating political appointees at FEMA would help "to assure that future leaders are qualified and trained for their jobs." Under Clinton, FEMA got high marks for effectiveness of leadership from across partisan boundaries.

Although FEMA's standing and morale was high during the Clinton administration, employees began to feel out of the loop during the Bush administration. Decisions were made behind closed doors, and any sense of teamwork between political appointees and experienced employees disappeared.

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