Walker urges management change

GAO recommends chief management officers as a way to improve emergency response

Catastrophic Disasters

Some federal agencies need chief management officers to oversee changes that take longer than most political appointees spend in office, the Government Accountability Office’s top official said at a recent event in which GAO released new reports on Hurricane Katrina.

Comptroller General David Walker, the head of GAO, said congressional leaders could consider creating chief management officer positions at the Homeland Security Department to improve DHS’ emergency response operations.

Walker also testified before Congress in the spring about the need to create federal chief operating officer or chief management officer positions at certain agencies to focus attention on transformational change and ensure accountability.

Setting up the framework for good emergency response takes a long time, sometimes longer than political appointees stay on the job, Walker said at the event sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service. DHS would need to fill such management positions with people who have “a proven track record of success both in the public and private sectors,” he said.

GAO envisions the management positions being term appointments of about seven years. Management executives who fill those positions would work under performance-based contracts.

“If Congress is considering a change in the qualifications of the undersecretary for federal emergency management, it should consider establishing statutory professional qualifications for the undersecretary and other selected key positions within DHS and term appointments for the undersecretary and selected other positions,” one GAO report states.

Some groups, however, want to see more coordinated emergency responses at various levels of government, but they don’t think chief management officers are the answer. “What we do not need is more management,” said Lois Clark McCoy, president of the National Institute for Urban Search and Rescue. Too much management, she said, is what held back National Guard units from doing their jobs in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

A lack of operational planning at the local level causes poor emergency responses, McCoy said. “What we need is long-range planning in operations.”

But some public policy experts say they see merit in having chief management officers at DHS. John Palguta, vice president of policy at the Partnership for Public Service, said a nonpolitical management executive under a long-term performance contract could put in the time needed to oversee the rebuilding of New Orleans, for example.

“The average life of a political appointee is a year and a half to two years,” Palguta said. “These folks simply aren’t there for the long haul.”

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