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Miami Herald: Why is FEMA wasting money?

December 27, 2018

The Government Accountability Office this month released a report titled “2017 Disaster Contracting: Action Needed to Better Ensure More Effective Use and Management of Advance Contracts.” Translation: FEMA isn’t managing contracts with relief providers very well.

FEMA signs advance contracts with companies to provide help after a disaster. It’s a smart way to do things.

During the recovery, especially in the first few days, if the agency had to negotiate a bunch of contracts on the fly, it would slow aid delivery and probably cost more. If the deal is sealed in advance, companies can quickly and cost-effectively deliver food, water, tents, blankets, communications equipment, debris-removing machinery, etc.

At least that’s the theory. The GAO found that in practice it isn’t working well.

In 2017, advance contracts locked in $4.5 billion to Hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria as well as California wildfires. But FEMA consistently failed to ensure that it got what it paid for. According to the GAO, the agency relied on outdated management strategies, trained its contracting officers poorly and did not communicate clearly with states and localities about what was available. Those flaws led to contracts being underutilized in Florida, Puerto Rico and other places. Taxpayers, meanwhile, paid for services and relief efforts that didn’t happen.

This isn’t a new problem. The GAO wrote a similar report in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina. It issued a supplemental report in 2015 noting that FEMA was still mismanaging advance contracts.

And here we are three years later, and the problems persist. After more than a decade, it’s hard to hope that FEMA has the ability and willingness to reform.

Reform, then, must come from outside the agency, and that means Congress or the White House must intervene.

The GAO’s report has nine achievable recommendations about ways to improve FEMA’s advance contracting system. They include modernizing contracting strategies and developing better communications protocols. Surely members of both parties can agree that delivering disaster relief efficiently and cost-effectively is a priority.

— Miami Herald

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