FEMA Tardiness, Grants.gov, and Dealing with Recalcitrant Bureaucrats

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)—the same guys who brought us the stellar job after Hurricane Katrina—issued the Assistance to Firefighters Grants program on what Grants.gov says is March 26, 2008. But the deadline was April 04, 2008, which is absurdly short by any standards, let alone those of a federal agency. I sent an e-mail to the contact person, Tom Harrington, asking if there was a typo. He responded: “No mistake. The Grants.gov posting was a little delayed. The application period for AFG actually started on March 3rd.” So, unless you have psychic powers, it is unlikely that you would have known about this opportunity. This “little delay” is for a program with $500,000,000 of funding. If anything has changed at FEMA since Katrina, it’s not obvious from my encounter with the organization; as President Bush said to FEMA’s chief after Katrina, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job!

I was curious about how and why this deadline foul-up occurred, leading to an e-mail exchange Tom, who appears to be a master at not knowing about the programs he is a contact person for. It’s instructive to contrast my experience with him and the one with the state officials who I wrote about in Finding and Using Phantom Data. Bureaucrats come in a variety of forms, some helpful, like the ones who provided dental data to the best of their ability, and some not, such as Tom.

I replied to his e-mail and said, “Do you know who was responsible for the delay, or can you find that out? Three weeks is more than a ‘little’ delayed.” He gave me a wonderfully bureaucratic response: “I don’t know if there is anyone specific to blame; the process is to blame.” That’s rather curious, since processes don’t put grant opportunities on Grants.gov—people do, assuming that federal bureaucrats should be considered people. And even if the “process” is to blame, someone specific should to change the process so problems like this one don’t recur. I replied: “If ‘the process is to blame,’ what will you do differently next year to make sure this doesn’t happen again?”

His response contradicted his earlier statement: “Assure that those responsible for the paperwork are informed that they are responsible for the paperwork.” In other words, someone is responsible for this year’s problem—but who is that person? I inquired: “I’m wondering who is responsible for the paperwork or who will be responsible for it.” And Tom responded: “As soon as the policy is written, we’ll know. At this time, there is no policy.” Notice how he didn’t answer my first question: who is responsible? Instead, he used two clever constructions, by saying that “we’ll know,” rather than him or some specific person with FEMA. Instead, some nebulous “we,” with no particular individual attached to the group will know. The passive construction “there is no policy,” avoid specifying a responsible person. Tom uses language to cloak the identity of whoever might be in charge of the FEMA policy regarding Grants.gov. The e-mail exchange went for another fruitless round before I gave up.*

If you were actually interested in finding the truth about who caused the delay, or how it will be avoided next year, you’d have to try and find out who is really in charge of the program, contact that person, and probably continue up the food chain when that person gives you answers similar to Tom’s. Normal people, however, are unlikely to ever try this, which is why Tom’s blame of “the process” is so ingenious: he avoids giving any potential target. Someone caused this problem, and to find out who would probably take an enterprising journalist or an academic highly interested in the issue.**

Sadly, I’m not going to be that person, as I write this chiefly to show a) how bureaucracies work, which isn’t always in the positive way I described in “Finding and Using Phantom Data”, and b) why you should be cognizant of the potential drawbacks of Grants.gov. Regarding the former, if you need to find information from reluctant bureaucrats, you have to be prepared to keep trying to pin them down or become enough of a pest that they or their bosses would rather get rid of you by complying with your request than by stonewalling. If the bureaucrats at the health department from “Finding and Using Phantom Data” had been as unhelpful as Tom, I would’ve begun this process because data is more important than the deadline for this program.

This strange interlude in the Never Never Land of FEMA also tells us something important about Grants.gov: the primary website for notifying interested parties about government grants is as useful as the organizations who use it. Any fire department that depends on Grants.gov for announcements just got screwed. Despite the designation of Grants.gov as “a central storehouse for information on over 1,000 grant programs[…]”, it’s only as good as the independent organizations using it. Perhaps not surprisingly, given FEMA’s past performance, that organization doesn’t appear interested in timeliness. Incidents like this explain Isaac’s wariness and skepticism toward Grants.gov, and why it, like so many government efforts, tends not to live up to its purpose. And when something goes wrong, whether it be FEMA during Hurricane Katrina or propagating information about grant programs, don’t be surprised if “the process is to blame.”

EDIT: You can see our follow-ups to this post in “FEMA Fails to Learn New Tricks With the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program” and “FEMA and Grants.gov Together at Last.”


* Tolstoy wrote in the appendix to War and Peace (trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky):

In studying an epoch so tragic, so rich in the enormity of its events, and so near to us, of which such a variety of traditions still live, I arrived at the obviousness of the fact that the causes of the historical events that take place are inaccessible to our intelligence. To say […] that the causes of the events of the year twelve are the conquering spirit of Napoleon and the patriotic firmness of the emperor Alexander Pavlovich, is as meaningless to say that the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire are that such-and-such barbarian led his people to the west […] or that an immense mountain that was being leveled came down because the last workman drove his spade into it.

You could say the same of trying to study the manifold tentacles and networks of the federal government, which is only moved, and then only to a limited extent, during a truly monumental and astonishing screw-up like Katrina, which is itself only a manifestation of problems that extend far backwards in time and relate to culture, incentives, and structure, but such failures are only noticed by the body politic at large during disasters.

** Even journalists get tired of fighting the gelatinous blob. As Clive Crook writes in The Atlantic, “Personally, and I speak admittedly as a resident of the District of Columbia, I find the encompassing multi-jurisdictional tyranny of inspectors, officers, auditors, and issuers of licenses—petty bureaucracy in all its teeming proliferation—more oppressive in the United States than in Britain, something I never expected to say.”

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