Organizational expert argues for supporting FEMA

Public affairs and organizational expert Donald Moynihan recently decried cuts to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, arguing that centralization of U.S. disaster response capabilities is beneficial.

Moynihan, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's La Follette School of Public Affairs, says discussions about FEMA rarely acknowledge the agency's necessity. Furthermore, while the United States is debating whether a national agency to manage crises is necessary, other countries have already started to address how to run such an agency in an age of catastrophic risks, according to Nature.

"The cut to FEMA is a false economy," Moynihan writes, Nature reports. "If we do not prepare for the growing threats that FEMA deals with, we will pay more when disaster strikes. Worse, there is a political effort under way to delegate its responsibilities to regional and local authorities."

The professor considers FEMA a classic example of a public good because it offers a market-level service that all states and local governments will utilize when necessary, but generally under-invest in. >From a cost-based perspective, it therefore makes more sense to unify and organize high-level risk expertise for the nation as a whole.

"This was, in fact, the rationale for the creation of FEMA in 1979," Moynihan writes, Nature reports. "Governors were tired of dealing with a confusing federal approach to disaster response, and convinced then-president Jimmy Carter of the need for a single central agency."

Moynihan notes that only a national government can develop the common standards necessary to avert confusion when different organizations bring multiple approaches to disaster response. He says such a process is imperfect, but capable of establishing role expectations before a crisis and flexibility during one, according to Nature.

It is the political process, however, that will remain the greatest obstacle for the development of effective disaster response capabilities at the national level. Moynihan says the politicization of disaster response drains attention from FEMA's primary function, mitigating and preparing for disasters. He says estimates suggest that every dollar invested in mitigation results in the long-term savings of between four and 15 dollars, but investments made in the absence of direct, tangible threats seem to have little value to voters and therefore are not made, especially at the state and local level.