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Breaking down 'administrator mystique': An interview with FEMA's Craig Fugate

W. Craig Fugate is the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Prior to this role, Fugate served as director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management where he coordinated disaster response, recovery, preparedness and mitigation efforts with each of the state's 67 counties and local governments. Fugate began his emergency management career as a volunteer firefighter, emergency paramedic and finally as a lieutenant with the Alachua County Fire Rescue.

What leadership lessons did you learn from your experience as head of Florida's emergency agency? How are you applying these lessons to your role as FEMA administrator?

The biggest thing I've learned is that it has to be a team approach. I find that in disasters, they move too fast--and the more that you try to control, the worse the outcome. I'm learning that it's not the total abandonment of responsibility nor is it about controlling everything yourself but rather empowering your team and building a team of multiple agencies and individuals whom you've empowered and built the confidence to trust each other.

What I have found in coming to FEMA and the federal level is that people are paralyzed over the fear of failing, and that really is something that I have to constantly focus on for the career services folks. There's a lot more of the tendency to stay within your confines and not stick your neck out, yet I'm turning around asking people to stick their neck out. I want to do things that may not always be successful. So coming to Washington, it's about changing that mindset.

How are you helping FEMA employees to overcome their fear of failure?

I know my craft; I practice it. I show examples and base it upon where I've failed and how I've dealt with these issues. People always talk about their successes, and I feel that if everything is a success then it wasn't that bad. I try to put things in context, saying, "Look, folks, I know what you've been through." When I got this job, I got congratulations and condolences from folks about taking the job at FEMA. I didn't come here on a mission to fail. If I didn't think FEMA could do this job, I wouldn't have taken it. It comes back to basically trying to be as real about things as I can.

What are your biggest day-to-day challenges leading and managing FEMA? How are you overcoming these challenges?

If you [talk] with a lot of my peers at the state and local level, they'll tell you one of the big problems with FEMA is that we're too bureaucratic. Processes are too complicated; and for jurisdictions that have to deal with recovery, dealing with the paperwork and the burden of the recovery is almost as onerous as the disaster itself. We've developed procedures over time to address specific issues where there was a failing, such as an IG report or GAO criticism of the agency. In many cases, we're becoming more stringent in trying to prevent something from happening in the future, but what we're really doing is making the process so complex it creates the unintended consequence of making it worse. We're trying to step back and [ask], "Why are we doing what we're doing if it's not what Congress has specified?"

Another major challenge I have is that budgets don't grow indefinitely and new problems don't guarantee a new source of funding. How do we spend what we've got? Are we getting the best investment for those dollars? Do we need to look at how we expend those funds? We need to make decisions on how we're utilizing our resources, both in anticipation that there may be reductions in future years and to make sure we're also getting the biggest bang for our bucks.

How are you engaging your employees in the mission and work of FEMA?

We do the all-hands stuff, but probably not as frequently as some folks do. I have the tendency to just escape and show up places and walk around. One of the things we did early on is that we went to all the 10 regional offices and did an all-hands meeting. It turns out that previous FEMA administrators hadn't done that unless there was a disaster in that region. I'm trying to break down the mystique that I'm an 'administrator.' I'm an emergency manager--that's what I do and that's how I approach the job. This is about the people we help; this isn't about me.

By Tom Fox

 |  November 30, 2010; 6:03 PM ET |  Category:  View from the Top Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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