Homeland Security Watchdog Issues Unusual Retraction of 13 FEMA Reports

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Results of self-criticism to be fewer “feel-good” after-action evaluations.

In a highly unusual move, the Homeland Security Department inspector general’s office issued a self-criticism of previous “feel-good” evaluations of incident responses by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

 The “special report” dated May 23 blames a previous IG for failing to communicate auditing standards, and it also “retracts” 13 previously published reports on the agency’s Emergency Management Oversight Teams.

Changes made in 2011 by John Kelly and then-Assistant Inspector General D. Michael Beard, the report said, were not well communicated and “set the work off course and resulted in a flawed product line.” The new approach, the auditors said, caused personnel to “think of Emergency Management Oversight Team reports as 'feel good' reports — i.e., generally positive reports that typically concluded that FEMA’s initial response to a disaster was effective.”

More recent audits of FEMA’s responses to the 2017 hurricanes have been largely critical.

The retractions of reports from 2015-2017 were set in motion in July 2017, when members of the then-Republican-controlled House Oversight and Reform Committee complained about what they saw as inaccuracies.  A review finalized in March 2018 resulted in the retractions, prompting the lawmakers to ask Kelly whether the disclaimers were the result of a “people problem,” a “process problem,” or a combination.

Kelly—who became acting IG after John Roth retired in November 2017—recused himself from a broader special review led by Diana Shaw, assistant inspector general for special reviews and evaluations, and delivered this spring to Deputy Inspector General Jennifer Costello.

The changes in practices introduced in 2011 affected the areas of audit planning, supervision and independent referencing, the report explained. Unlike past practices, every disaster deployment, rather than selected ones, would be reviewed. The new approach would be a formal audit in compliance with the Government Accountability Office’s “Yellow Book” standards—though that wasn’t made clear to all staff.

Thirdly, the objective of Emergency Management Oversight Teams “shifted from promoting effectiveness and efficiency to evaluating whether FEMA’s initial disaster response was effective and efficient,” the new report said, noting that no criteria for such conclusions were created. And fourth, “several factors led to a formulaic approach to the drafting of [oversight team] reports that resulted in reports with a generally positive focus,” the report said.

The IG made five recommendations for improving internal controls to its own staff, among them removing the 13 overly “feel-good” reports and ensuring that “all future early deployment work conducted by DHS OIG, if any, is performed in accordance with applicable standards.” The IG was also asked to refer the new report to Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency “for whatever action it deems appropriate.”

The IG agreed with all recommendations.

The retractions and mea culpa seemed unprecedented to Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University who has long studied IGs. “I can’t think of a single instance," he told Government Executive. “On one hand, they took action to remove the reports, but on the other hand, Congress still needs to look again at whether IGs are properly insulated from White House and agency pressure to say nice things. There isn’t an IG in Washington who doesn’t understand the potential of an after-action report to be very significant.”

Scott Amey, general counsel at the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, said FEMA might have learned more from its mistakes if not for the overly positive reports: "Painting such a rosy picture was misguided and likely prevented a lessons-learned approach that could have improved federal response to emergencies, and saved money," he said. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said John Kelly had retired. He is acting IG