5 lessons from Katrina

Nonprofit group makes management recommendations based on public-sector responses to Hurricane Katrina

The Partnership for Public Service distilled five public-sector management lessons from the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated large portions of the Gulf Coast in August 2005. Those five lessons learned are the focus of the group’s new Web site, Government After Katrina.

“If there is one lesson to take from Hurricane Katrina, it’s that effective government is absolutely essential,” said Max Stier, president of the organization, which promotes public service.

Based on lessons learned from Katrina relief operations, the government should seek to hire an adequate number of effective workers, better coordinate with state and local governments and private groups, study past successes and failures, and appoint chief management officers who have five-year mandates to transform agencies’ core workforce, information technology and financial management functions.

The fifth lesson is that the government needs to invest the time, money and intellectual capital necessary to implement those four recommendations.

The new Web site provides workforce statistics on the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Coast Guard — two federal agencies that play major roles in disaster response. Both face a potential workforce crisis as experienced employees retire or leave the government. The average length of service is 17.5 years at FEMA and 16 years at the Coast Guard.

At FEMA, full-time experienced workers are leaving faster than younger ones do. “Over the past five years, the percentage of those leaving that have served for 20 years or more increased from 44 percent in 2001 to 56 percent in 2005 and is well above the entire government’s attrition rate for that group,” according to the site.

The group identifies IT employees in particular as critical to FEMA and Coast Guard operations. FEMA expanded its permanent IT workforce by 11 percent from 2004 to 2005. The Coast Guard has added 400 full-time IT employees since 2001. In fiscal 2005, the Coast Guard had 405 IT workers on staff.

The site statistics do not show how retirement-related departures might be affecting that agency’s permanent IT workforce numbers.

The Partnership for Public Service highlights the importance of better coordination, which other experts say is essential to modern public governance.

“The way problems are addressed is through networks of interaction rather than any one agency doing anything on its own,” said J. Christopher Mihm, managing director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office. “The fundamental outcomes the government wants to achieve aren’t achieved by one federal agency doing something on its own.”

The Coast Guard’s successful performance after Katrina is a lesson in the importance of good training and effective field-level decision-making. Coast Guard employees, for example, are trained throughout their careers to make critical decisions during crises. The group’s recommendations include “creating a top-notch federal workforce that is able and empowered to innovate during crises.”

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