OMB review of FEMA response program failed to send up red flag

In an assessment published as part of the Bush administration's fiscal 2006 budget request, the Office of Management and Budget rated the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster response program as "adequate."

OMB has no immediate plans to re-evaluate the program in light of FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina. But the agency's recent performance will be a factor in future reviews, said Alex Conant, an administration spokesman.

"The performance of all federal agencies in the first two weeks of the disaster, as well as their work in the many weeks and months that remain in front of us, will be considered in future [evaluations]," Conant said.

Adequate is the middle of five ratings agencies can earn on OMB's formal evaluations-conducted each year using a questionnaire called the Program Assessment Rating Tool. The reviews are intended to inform budget decisions, and so far have reached 60 percent of federal programs.

Of 607 programs rated in the fiscal 2006 budget request, 15 percent ranked as "effective," 26 percent earned marks of "moderately effective," 26 percent ranked as "adequate," 4 percent were rated "ineffective" and 29 percent could not demonstrate results.

The FEMA response program received high scores for management and planning, with lower scores in the "purpose" and "results/accountability" sections of the PART. The evaluation pointed to some potential legal obstacles in getting resources to disaster victims.

For instance, the Stafford Act prevents FEMA from disbursing federal aid until states issue a disaster declaration. This could result in ineffective targeting of resources, the OMB evaluators said.

"There may be situations in which resources that the government has invested in cannot be used," the PART review stated. "The opposite [could] also occur. Resources may be used in support of a community that should not be receiving federal aid."

OMB evaluators also criticized FEMA response managers for failing to tie budget requests to annual and long-term performance goals. Requests for the Disaster Relief Fund-part of the response budget-are based on a five-year average of disaster costs rather than performance data, the program assessment noted.

Aside from these criticisms, the FEMA program generally fared well. Program managers conduct quarterly reviews that are "useful in identifying management deficiencies," evaluators stated. Managers are then held accountable for any shortfalls, and recommend corrective actions, the PART evaluation stated.

The quarterly reviews pointed to "fundamental flaws in logistical response times during Hurricane Isabel [in 2003]," OMB stated in the assessment. In response, FEMA created the Pre-Positioned Disaster Supply Program "for more efficient logistical responses in the future," the evaluators said.

Conant did not say whether OMB sees a disconnect between the PART rating and FEMA's actual performance in response to the hurricane, or whether such a discrepancy would hurt the credibility of the program evaluations, which OMB has urged lawmakers to consider when making budget decisions.

The administration will avoid further taxing FEMA's resources by requesting an immediate review of the response program's score, Conant said. "Stopping the relief and recovery activities now to ask agencies on the front line to conduct a PART on themselves," he said, "probably isn't the best or highest use of resources right now."

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