Marking 40 Years of FEMA

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order merging many separate, disaster-related responsibilities into an independent agency called the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In the 40 years since its creation, FEMA has undergone dramatic changes—most notably in 2003, when it became part of the newly created Department of Homeland Security in the aftermath of the events of 9/11.

In today’s WatchBlog, we explore what we have found as FEMA has evolved through the years, and what it can do to improve operations in the future.

The early years

A few years after FEMA’s creation, we reported on some problems FEMA faced in getting started. For example, in 1983 we noted that the agency didn’t have enough staff and had difficulties in defining its mission, goals, and objectives.

Hurricane Andrew slammed into South Florida in 1992. At the time, it was the most devastating and expensive disaster to hit the country. After that storm, we found that the federal government’s strategy for dealing with catastrophic disasters was inadequate. We noted that improving FEMA’s damage assessments, developing a disaster unit, and enacting legislation to aid in preparing for disasters would improve the nation’s response to these events.

Recent disasters and response

Since the start of this century, the country has been struck by many major disasters that have reshaped how the government prepares for, responds to, and recovers from, disasters. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and is still considered one of the worst natural disasters to strike the country.

We made numerous recommendations after Katrina to help the government confront future catastrophic events—many of which were implemented. Among our recommendations were that DHS provide guidance and direction to other federal, state, and local agencies to ensure adequate preparedness, response, and recovery roles.

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit the Mid-Atlantic and northeastern states and caused $65 billion in damage.

We reported afterwards that the federal government should develop a strategy to help the nation reduce future disaster risk. Our podcast from that time has more details.

After both disasters, Congress passed major legislation to reform FEMA.

Current challenges for FEMA

Recent large-scale disasters—such as hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and the California wildfires—have created unprecedented demand for federal disaster help. In fact, the 2017 hurricane and wildfire season included 3 of the top 5 costliest hurricanes on record at the time. As of June 2018, Congress had appropriated over $120 billion in supplemental funding for response and recovery related to these disasters.

FEMA’s workforce also swelled during this time. We reported that, in October 2017, close to 14,000 federal employees were deployed in response to the disasters.

Listen to our podcast with Chris Currie, a director in our Homeland Security and Justice team, for more on what we found:


And watch our video, where Chris answers questions from the public and talks about federal disaster assistance efforts and challenges.

In 2018, more catastrophic hurricanes and wildfire disasters hit the country, requiring even greater federal disaster assistance. We have work underway now examining how FEMA responded to these disasters.

What’s needed in the future?

One of our open priority recommendations is for FEMA to develop a better way to assess whether states and local governments can respond to and recover from disasters without federal assistance. FEMA is working on this problem but does not yet have an estimated date for completing its efforts.

We also have other open recommendations to FEMA, including reviewing the number of staff it requires, defining its mission needs, and filling its skill gaps.

Further, FEMA has a role to play in one of our high-risk areas: limiting the federal government’s fiscal exposure by better managing climate change risks. For example, we noted in our 2019 High Risk List report that FEMA has not completed a national preparedness assessment to help set priorities for grant funding.

As the 2019 hurricane and wildfire season approaches, FEMA will need to be ready. We will continue to review the agency’s efforts just as we have done for many decades.

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An Ongoing Risk: Cybersecurity Attacks at Federal Agencies

Image of Computer CodeSimilar to how new flu shots come out each year to combat new strains of the virus, agencies must routinely adapt their cybersecurity efforts to address evolving threats.

In today’s WatchBlog, we look at the federal government’s approach to and strategy for securing its systems.

Read on and listen to our podcast with Greg Wilshusen, a director in our Information Technology and Cybersecurity team, to learn about what has been done and what needs to be improved.


Many attacks still occur

While federal agencies have gotten better at preventing and detecting intrusions into their systems, they are still vulnerable to attacks such as unauthorized computer invasions. In FY 2017, for instance, federal agencies reported more than 35,000 cybersecurity incidents.

Figure Showing Federal Information Security Incidents by Threat Vector Category, Fiscal Year 2017

Why is federal cybersecurity important?

When you step back to think about the vast amount of sensitive information the government maintains, it becomes apparent why cyberattacks pose a serious threat to our economic, national, and personal privacy and security. For example:

Are federal agencies working to improve security?

In some respects, agencies are doing a better job at protecting against cyberattacks than before the 2015 Office of Personnel Management data breach.

However, most agencies still don’t have an effective approach to securing their systems. For example, inspectors general at 17 of the agencies we reviewed in our recent report said that their information security programs weren’t effective enough.

What more can be done?

We’ve made more than 3,000 recommendations to agencies since 2010 related to cybersecurity shortcomings. Although many of these recommendations have been addressed, approximately 600 had not been implemented as of March 2019.

We recently recommended that DHS and the Office of Management and Budget help agencies improve their intrusion detection and prevention capabilities by, among other things, identifying what obstacles and impediments affect their ability to detect and prevent intrusions.

We also have plans to further assess the adequacy and effectiveness of federal agencies’ information security programs.

To learn more, read our full report.

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The Future of the Federal Workforce

Logo for Public Service Recognition WeekFor Public Service Recognition Week, we’re celebrating the valuable contributions federal employees—including our GAO colleagues—provide to our country every day.

This week is also a good time to think about how the government can manage its workforce in the future. Read on and listen to our podcast with Robert Goldenkoff, a director in our Strategic Issues team, to learn about our recent work in this area.


Keeping up with changes in the federal workforce

Federal employment policies were designed generations ago for a workforce and type of work that largely no longer exists. As a result, the government may struggle to compete for talented workers with the skills needed to address the nation’s social, economic, and security challenges. That’s one reason why federal human capital management has been on GAO’s High Risk List since 2001.

And this is not an isolated issue. In fact, talent management plays a role in 16 of our 35 high-risk areas. For example, difficulties recruiting and retaining skilled workers affects the government’s cybersecurity efforts and the quality of health care for our nation’s veterans.

In a recent report, we identified key trends affecting federal work and talent management strategies for attracting and keeping skilled workers

Trends affecting federal work

Technology, demographics, and attitudes toward work are evolving. These and other trends are affecting how federal work is done and, consequently, the skills and competencies that workers need to accomplish agency missions.

Figure Showing Key Trends Affecting Federal Work

Strategies for attracting and keeping talent

Collectively, the talent management strategies we identified provide a helpful reminder of steps agencies can take to attract the best employees to help fulfill agency missions. In other words, preparing for the future workforce isn’t about revolutionary approaches; instead, it’s about focused attention to leadership, culture, and sound management practices. For instance, agencies can attract and keep talented workers by:

  • Offering work/life balance such as flexible scheduling,
  • Offering development opportunities,
  • Linking employees’ daily activities to the agency’s mission, and
  • Recruiting graduating students earlier in the school year.

Public Service from the Investigative Arm of Congress

Here at GAO about 3,000 public servants work at headquarters and 11 field offices spread across the country. We’re proud that our work produced $75.1 billion in measurable financial benefits to the nation in fiscal year 2018. That amounts to a return of about $124 for every dollar invested in GAO. We also identified 1,294 other benefits that led to program and operational improvements across the government.

Want to know more? Check out our key issues pages on human capital, including those on Best Practices.

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Building Capacity in Science & Technology

Here’s some news that’s generating excitement among the nerds here at GAO. (Which, if we’re being honest, is most of us.) Our new science and technology team officially has a plan to rapidly expand the rigorous, nonpartisan analysis it provides to Congress.

GAO has been building its capacity in science and technology since 2002. With this latest step, we are on track to deliver services on a scale that matches the enormous importance of these issues.

You can think of the plan in three parts: people, partnerships, and products.


It starts with the people we need to tackle more and more complex analysis. Our first step has been to transfer and hire several staff into the new unit, formally known as Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics, or STAA.

We plan to bring the team’s roster to 70 people later this year and expand to as many as 140 in the next few years. The existing staff includes PhDs in physics, chemistry, and engineering, as well as a strong contingent of veteran analysts, auditors, specialists, and communicators.

Our next round of hiring will emphasize biological sciences, computer engineering, aerospace engineering, and data science and engineering, among other fields. We are also exploring hiring post-doctoral researchers and other limited-term staff to provide expertise tailored to each project.


A second element of the plan is partnerships, which we need in order to give Congress access to world-leading researchers in a variety of fields. We will use partnerships to convene panels of experts, collaborate on research, and conduct peer reviews and other expert reviews.

One of our key partners is the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The launch of STAA adds new dimensions to this long-standing relationship. For example, we recently began work on a set of 3 technology assessments on artificial intelligence in health care, which we plan to conduct jointly with panels of researchers to be assembled by the National Academy of Medicine.

We are making additional connections, for example by establishing 2 external boards to further enhance our science and technology work. The first is an advisory board of thought leaders, who will help give us the vision to anticipate and respond to critical technologies as they emerge, or even before. Its members will include experts from industry, academia, and nonprofits, as well as former senior government officials. The second will be made up of experts who will focus on our technology assessments, helping us ensure they are rigorous, relevant, and fully peer reviewed.


A third element of the STAA plan is product improvements to align with the fast pace of both congressional work and technological change. We will place greater emphasis on technical assistance and other ways to deliver rigorous analysis on tight deadlines.

For example, we are applying a new method for the evaluation of policy options in our technology assessments. As a nonpartisan, fact-based agency, we do not propose policies, but we will now give a balanced analysis of the pros, cons, and trade-offs of options proposed by others.

STAA will also write audit reports, the products for which GAO is best known and which save taxpayers billions of dollars each year. To further strengthen this core line of work, STAA is creating an innovation lab to help GAO make greater use of tools such as advanced analytics and data science. STAA will also update and enhance GAO’s best-practice guides for keeping large federal acquisitions on schedule and on budget.

Looking Forward

In a blog post in January, we described the “what” of the STAA team. With our new plan, submitted to Congress in March and made public April 10, we now have the “how.”

This plan puts GAO’s newest team on a path to deliver faster, more insightful analysis for Congress and the American people.

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How Some Property Owners are “Gaming” the HUD Inspection Process

image of family in a homeFinancial assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) helps keep affordable housing within reach for more than 2 million American households. HUD wants to ensure that the housing it’s helping to provide is clean, safe, and in good repair—so it inspects properties and enforces federal standards.

But we’ve found that some property owners might be gaming the inspection process—taking actions that are technically allowed but that are not consistent with the intent of providing housing that is meeting the required physical condition standards. Today’s WatchBlog explores the issue.

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Credit Reporting Agencies and You

If you’ve ever signed up for a credit card or taken out a loan to buy a car, the credit card company or bank has probably checked your credit report to see if you qualify. But where does the information in your credit report come from?

In today’s WatchBlog, we look at consumer (or credit) reporting agencies (CRAs) and how they collect and use your data.

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Earth Day 2019 – Protecting At-Risk Fish, Birds, and Animals

photo of the earth from spaceIt’s Earth Day; and this year’s theme is about broadening protection for at-risk species and their habitats. What is the nation doing on this front? Today’s WatchBlog examines some national and international efforts.

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Some Sexual Assault Kits Aren’t Sent to Crime Labs. Why not?

Evidence in sexual assault kits can be a powerful tool to help find and prosecute  perpetrators of sex crimes and other crimes. Yet, evidence collected in thousands of sex assault kits hasn’t been turned over to crime labs for analysis.

Today’s WatchBlog explores this issue. Also, listen to our podcast featuring Gretta Goodwin, a director in our Homeland Security and Justice team, for more on the related issue of DNA evidence backlogs at labs.


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Filing Taxes without Breaking the Bank

Image of IRS Form 1040, U.S. Individual Income Tax ReturnAs you may have noticed this tax season, there’s no shortage of options for filing your taxes.

For those who need it, IRS has several options to file taxes (or receive tax preparation assistance) for free. Today’s WatchBlog looks at these and other tax-filing options, from our recent report on tax refund-related products. Read on and listen to our podcast with Michael Clements, a director in our Financial Markets and Community Investment team, to learn more.


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The Nation’s Fiscal Health: A Warning about the Government’s Finances

Photo of $100 BillsWithout a change in law or policy, the gap between the amount of money the federal government collects and the amount it spends will continue to grow, likely reaching $1 trillion in the next few years.

We issued our third annual update on the nation’s fiscal health today, examining both the federal government’s current fiscal condition and its longer-term fiscal outlook.

Listen to our podcast with Susan Irving, GAO’s expert on debt and fiscal issues, and read on for more about our report.


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