Wednesday, October 03, 2007

FEB's: Greasing the Wheels?

Given recent reports regarding the complexity and lack of clarity regarding the response to a biological incident (read: pandemic flu), GAO Director of Strategic Issues, Bernice Steinhardt, speaks glowingly of the ability of Federal Executive Boards (FEBs) to grease the wheels.

Created by a Presidential Directive in 1961, the FEBs are composed of the federal field office agency heads and military commanders in the FEBs’ areas of service.

Located in 28 cities with a large federal presence, the FEBs are interagency coordinating groups designed to strengthen federal management practices and improve intergovernmental relations. The FEBs bring together the federal agency leaders in their service areas and have a long history of establishing and maintaining communications links, coordinating intergovernmental activities, identifying common ground, and building cooperative relationships. The boards also partner with community organizations and participate as a unified federal force in local civic affairs.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which provides direction to the FEBs, and the boards have designated emergency preparedness, security, and safety as an FEB core function and are continuing to work on a strategic plan that will include a common set of performance standards for their emergency support activities.
They already outreach with state and local agencies - good!
OPM reported that it expects the boards to serve as federal liaisons for state and local emergency officials and to assess local emergency situations in cooperation with federal, state, and local officials.

As a natural outgrowth of their general civic activities and through activities such as hosting emergency preparedness training, some of the boards have established relationships with, for example, federal, state, and local governments; emergency management officials; first responders; and health officials in their communities. Some of the FEBs are already building capacity for pandemic influenza response within their member agencies and community organizations by hosting pandemic influenza training and exercises.

Terrific! But all is not rosy.
The FEBs, however, face key challenges in providing emergency support, and these interrelated issues limit the capacity of the FEBs to provide a consistent and sustained contribution to emergency preparedness and response. First, their role is not defined in national emergency plans, which may contribute to federal agency officials being unfamiliar with their capabilities. In addition, with no congressional appropriations, the FEBs depend on host agencies and other member agencies for their resources.
True. FEBs are not mentioned in the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza or its Implementation Plan, the North American Plan for Avian and Pandemic Influenza, the DOD Pandemic Flu Implementation Plan, or the HHS Pandemic Influenza Plan.

The FEBs are mentioned - once - in the National Response Plan. But their duty is limited to the first hour after an incident, when they are to deliver a "Federal Government status announcement [when the affected area is] outside the National Capital Region (NCR)." And then the FEBs get no mention at all in the draft National Response Framework, the proposed successor to the NRP.

This is a real detriment:
According to both FEB directors and FEMA officials, the FEBs could carry out their emergency support role more effectively if their role was included in national emergency management plans. FEMA officials from two different regions said they felt the boards could be used more effectively and that they add value to the nation’s emergency operations.
So it's perhaps a bit of a stretch to suggest that the FEBs will automatically slot into these plans. Still, they're an existing entity with the right kind of networking skills and mission:
Research has shown that systems like the FEBs have proven to be valuable public management tools because they can operate horizontally, across agencies in this case, and integrate the strengths and resources of a variety of organizations in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to effectively address critical public problems, such as pandemic influenza.
And they've done good work in the past:

The FEBs have played a role in responding to past emergencies. For example, when the Oklahoma City Murrah Federal Building was bombed on April 19, 1995, the FEB staff knew all of the agencies in the Murrah Building; the home telephone numbers of critical staff; the city, county, and state principals in Oklahoma City; and which federal agencies were available to provide immediate relief and support.

During hurricanes Katrina and Rita, according to a FEMA official, the New Orleans FEB executive director established and maintained an essential communication link between FEMA’s Office of National Security Coordination and OPM.
But their effectiveness is far from universal:
Although all of the boards reported some involvement of state and local officials in their emergency activities, the degree of board connections with state and local officials varied. ... The Dallas-Fort Worth FEB executive director reported that the board partners with state and local government representatives, the private sector, law enforcement, and first responders, all of which are key players in assessing local emergency situations. On the other hand, the Chicago FEB executive director said that because Chicago is so large, the board has few established relationships with state and local officials.
There are other obstacles as well, starting with a serious lack of appropriations:
Although membership by agency heads on the boards is required, active participation is voluntary in practice, and the boards operate with no independent authority. The FEBs also have no congressional charter and receive no congressional appropriation but rather depend on voluntary contributions from their member agencies.
So is this a silver bullet? Even the FEBs say, "maybe not."
Looking ahead, however, representatives from 14 of the 28 FEBs disagreed on the role the boards should play in emergency service support, particularly during an emergency. Without adequate staff and resources, some of the executive directors expressed concern that they will not be able to meet expectations.
But with pandemic flu, the FEBs do have certain strengths:

[T]he nature of pandemic influenza, which presents different concerns than localized natural disasters, may make the FEBs a valuable asset in pandemic preparedness and response.
Many of the FEBs have cultivated relationships within their federal, state, and local governments and their metropolitan area community organizations as a natural outgrowth of their general activities. For example, FEB activities, such as the Combined Federal Campaign and scholarship programs, bring the boards into contact with local charities and school boards.

In terms of current pandemic planning, some of the FEBs are already building capacity for pandemic influenza response within their member agencies and community organizations by hosting pandemic influenza training and exercises.
The big question: Can FEBs really facilitate broader information sharing and clarify responsibilities? Or would it be a case of one more group without a clear mandate, gumming up the works?

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