Government and Ethics: Federal Emergency Management Agency

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This paper uses the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as a case study to examine the ethical or social justice issues that affect government or non-profit organizations. The focus of the paper is to investigate the ethical issues related to FEMA, the major ethical challenges affecting the organization, and the strategies that FEMA uses to maintain responsible conduct. In addition, the paper explains how the recommendations proposed to FEMA can be employed to address its challenges. In order to understand this better, the paper will present the analysis of factors that would affect the implementation of the outlined recommendations by using the ethical decision-making model and description of the expected outcomes if the organization takes the following suggestions into account. Finally, the paper concludes by analyzing how human rights issues correlate with the ethical issues and challenges raised.

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is a government agency under the Department of Homeland Security that is responsible for handling disaster response activities considered overwhelming for the state and local authorities. This agency is thus the last resort for the United States in the event of any disaster, especially floods and storms that are too frequent in the country. Like many governmental institutions, FEMA has a bureaucratic organizational structure and culture that necessitate some very complex procedures before a decision can be made and implemented. It is also important to note that FEMA is still under the Department of Homeland Security despite the declaration that it is a major agency under the DHS. This means that the organization is still under the DHS in terms of its leadership and internal policy despite its relative operational independence. Consequently, the ethical decision making here is a rather slow process with a lot of external influences that may not be very ethical. The organization, like any other government agency, is likely to succumb to political power plays thus limiting their integrity in matters of ethical and social justice. This paper discusses ethical issues and challenges affecting FEMA. Also, the paper proposes a list of measures that FEMA can adopt to remedy the situation. Finally, the paper examines how human rights issues correlate with the ethical issues raised.

Explanation of the Ethical Issues Related to Two or More of the Philosophical Theories

Ethical Issues and Their Possible Occurrence at FEMA

Ethics is a concept that can mean many different things to various people, but the bottom line stops at the difference between right and wrong. Ethical dimensions require a definition and distinction of right and wrong from a moral, social, individual, or professional perspective so that one can either be wrong or right and not both at any one given time (Jackson, Sawyers, & Jenkins, 2009). The concept of ethics, however, depends on the circumstances that one is in as there are already too many philosophical theories that create a long-standing debate over the exact implications of the ethics concept. FEMA is a government agency, and thus falls in the public sector. Consequently, it is the organization that can and should be gauged based on the public sector ethics. Public sector ethics refer to a set of rules that any public administrator must follow (Woodall & Douglas, 2002). These individuals are stewards to the public, and must thus be exceptionally upright in terms of their actions (Jackson, Sawyers, & Jenkins, 2009). As such, there are many possible ethical issues that the organization could face based on the applicable ethical theories. FEMA is an overall disaster management agency within the US, meaning that they are the last hope once the local and state authorities admit defeat. They can thus not afford to be biased or unprepared in executing their functions as an agency.

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Deontological Theories

Deontologists argue that honesty is the basis of ethics, meaning that regardless of the situation, an ethical individual or organization will be able to tell the truth and stand by it. It supposes that honesty must be upheld despite the consequences. The argument here is that one is bound by duty to do the right thing, and telling the truth is one of those things. Following the duty or obligation in this case would be a virtue for appointment into the public office, and those who are unable to comply with this expectation would be best suited to leave (Broderick & Novak, 2001).

The honesty principle is based on the deontological theories, which consider honesty as a basis for ethical conduct. This theory requires the individual to be honest at all times regardless of the consequences and is in sharp contrast with the consequentialist perspective that is rather common in political circles. The public administrators need to be able to exercise honesty and transparency in their duties to the public as they are the stewards and not the masters. To the government, this means that dishonesty is a cause for termination as it damages the chances of ethical conduct. This is an ethical issue because people are known to conceal the truth unless it serves their interests in one way or another. A good example is with respect to one’s political ideology. People often study for their job interviews by getting to understand the management and the organization’s philosophy in order to align theirs with it. This is dishonesty, and yet in most cases, it gets them the job. In such situation, honesty presents a consequence that is not as appealing as that presented by dishonesty, and the individual is likely to forfeit the honesty principle in favor of desirable consequences (Broderick & Novak, 2001).

The second possible ethical issue under the deontological theories would be a conflict of interest, which arises when people are too close to a given case, and they have to deal with it professionally. This often requires individuals to put their thoughts and feelings aside and act like professionals that they are. It is, however, not easy to do, and people often end up serving their personal interests in the guise of professionalism. By doing this, individuals forfeit the concept of being bound by duty since they serve their interests and not the interest of the public. Within a public organization, putting one’s personal interests in front of their role as a professional implies jeopardizing the public’s interests with respect to the project in question. The personal issue, in this case, could be an impending promotion, a family connection, or even a romantic angle. The point is, when one is too close to a given case, they should be able to separate the professional from the individual and do the right thing. This is, however, easier said than done.


This theory requires one to make ethical decisions based on the outcomes in that an ethical decision is the factor that will maximize the positive outcomes. In an organization like FEMA, the positive outcomes would be saving lives or preventing a disaster among other things. Under this theory, the choices made by a public administrator are not judged based on a set of rules but rather based on the consequences. The aim here is to minimize the negative outcomes while maximizing the positive ones; and the most ethical decision would be the one that has the best effects (Turvey & Crowder, 2013). A possible ethical issue would be with respect to allocating funds to two different projects. Normally, states get training support from FEMA, and this requires some funding. Also, there are a number of disasters that are actual emergencies, and they do not get to be prepared for enough. An administrator at FEMA may recall funds directed towards a training program in one state to fund a response in another based on the idea that the response is more urgent while the training can wait. The challenge here is in establishing that the response was all about saving lives that were at risk and not those that might be at risk in the future. Such an administrator could be judged harshly for diverting agency funds or not acting according to a passed budget. However, under the utilitarianism theory, the officer is well within the ethical expectations since he/she reduced the negative outcomes in the affected state despite negatively affecting the other one (Turvey & Crowder, 2013).

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A Summary of the Major Ethical Challenges and Conflicts of Responsibility Presented to Individuals in the Organization and to the Organization as a Whole

The major ethical challenges within this organization include conflict of interest, dishonesty driven by convenience, and decision making in terms of budget allocation. The aspect of conflict of interest arises because a number of senior employees at FEMA also run businesses that have been subcontracted by the company (Lewis, 2010). This issue presents serious ethical challenges because senior officers may arm-twist procurement laws to ensure that their businesses are awarded tenders. It also questions the probity of employees and decision making processes at FEMA.

Another challenge faced by this organization is fraud. Employees deal with dispatching relief services to disaster victims across the country. This means that they are usually put in a position where they can access a lot of relief funds and necessities like beddings, clothes, and food items to be handed out to the victims. Using Hurricane Katrina as an example, it may be noted that most of these items and money went to people who had not been influenced by the disaster (Lewis, 2010). One school of thought would like to think that the people faked their being affected and lied to the FEMA staff in order to get the help that was being offered. The problem with this theory is that it would mean that the organization does not have access to the information of residents within a given area. They work with the local authorities, and the assumption is that families within a given area are registered under their local authorities (Woodall & Douglas, 2002). The government in some cases ended up providing relief to a number that is larger than the given area’s population according to the local government’s registry. This suggests the possibility of collusion between the organization’s employees and the local population (Knights & O’Leary, 2006). The ethical dilemma here is that the organization was defrauded of a lot of money that could otherwise have been useful for handling other disasters or helping the real victims of Hurricane Katrina. There is also the possibility that those who collected the relief despite not having been affected by the storm may have been poor American citizens who also needed some kind of relief.

Strategies Used by the Organization to Maintain Responsible Conduct

Being a government agency, little has been done in reality to address the possibility of unethical conduct within this organization. The appointment process for new employees within the organization continues to be based on merit in terms of academic credentials and experience. The concept of honesty as a personality trait continues to evade this organization’s human resources department, and thus the honesty principle remains rather alien here. Nevertheless, the organization has some mechanisms that are aimed at avoiding the allure of unethical conduct amongst individuals, and these are discussed below.

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Clear Organizational Structure

Like most other government agencies, FEMA has a very clear organizational structure that decides on who has the power to do what. This means that all employees have a definitive role to play in order to fulfill their mandate within the organization. On the one hand, this imposes restrictions onto the employees, but it also allows them to specialize and do what they can do best as opposed to multitasking and overshadowing each other within the organization (Knights & O’Leary, 2006). This system enables the organization to maintain responsible conduct by ensuring that each employee is under his or her own spotlight, and any misconduct can be directly linked to the perpetrator without having to speculate or even investigate.


With each employee being individually monitored owing to the clear organizational structure, it follows that everyone within the organization takes responsibility for their actions. For the organization, this eliminates the need for micro managing the people. With everyone being responsible for what they do, it is rather difficult to get into unscrupulous conduct knowing that the spotlight is always on, and being caught is very easy. When someone goes against the organization’s policy, they are often ready to defend their actions depending on the ethical theories that they subscribe to. This not only eliminates the possibility of unethical conduct but also ensures that in case the organization is criticized, they have some philosophical explanations to back their decisions.

Performance Appraisals

These are conducted on an annual basis in most companies. At FEMA, however, they take place quarterly to ensure that whatever the employees do is ethical within organizational standards. On the one hand, this could mean taking too much time for the organization, but it also ensures that the employees keep their records clean based on the frequency of evaluation. FEMA is a large organization, but it has been divided into ten regional chapters that are close-knit for effective management and monitoring.


Decision-making affects the image of an organization, and at FEMA this fact is highly appreciated. As such, the organization’s decisions are made after consultation with the higher ranks. For example, before the organization can participate in an emergency response, the governor of the affected state will have to declare a state of emergency and request the President for the organization’s help. This ensures that a lot of consultations are made before any major decision is passed. Also, the organization works with numerous small departments, which have their own specialization, thus requiring extensive consultation and cooperation in order to work on an initiative. This provides responsible conduct, and the widening of the scope of consultations makes passing of a bad decision relatively impossible.

Recommendations for Addressing the Ethical Issues in FEMA

A public organization is defined by its duty to the public that it is intended to serve. This means that among other things, FEMA’s employees need to be bound by their duty towards the public. In order to address the ethical issues that plague this organization, it must be noted that the organization will have to be open to change, especially considering that it is a technological era with a lot of organizational management tools that are aimed at improving the efficiency of organizations, business, etc. (Smith, 2009).

The issue of honesty within FEMA can be addressed by going back to the drawing board. Employing people on the basis of their academic achievements ensures professionalism within the organization, but it does not help with ethical conduct. Most organizations, especially within the government, do not look for personality traits that they could find useful in a recruit. In order to create a culture of honesty regardless of the consequences, the organization will have to incorporate honesty into its required qualifications for all new job applications. When honesty is the basis of a working relationship, the likelihood of unethical conduct diminishes significantly. Based on deontological theories, honesty is the basic motivator in ethical conduct, and thus the only way to ensure that people act according to their ethical expectations is to vet them for honesty first. Seeing as the organization is fully staffed at the moment, training the employees on the importance of honesty and ethical conduct may go a long way in changing their attitudes thus improving the organization’s ethical status. It is also vital to appreciate that at this point there are so many guerrilla employees within the organization, and thus they can be used to push the honesty agenda. Leadership is especially crucial in this matter, and having regional heads or team leaders who support the cause will go a long way in solving this issue in the long run.

Conflict of interest and decision-making challenges can be solved by emphasizing the team-based decision-making. Leaving it to one individual provides the opportunity for an employee to put his or her personal interest ahead of the obligations to the public. By having a team based decision-making system, the number of people required to make and implement a given decision will be adequate in deterring the conflict of interest. Currently, the employees can hide behind organizational policies and philosophical theories on ethics, but when they have to support their decisions before they can implement them, things may be different. The idea here is to ensure that the power to make a decision within the organization is not vested in any single individual but rather on a team of peers who can counter argue each other’s opinions to find the best course of action as per organizational goals and objectives. Alternatively, the organization can invest in a decision support system that uses knowledge management to provide information regarding all the decisions. Such scheme will ensure that the choices made within the organization are in its best interest (Radin, 2006). This is a rather expensive option, but it will benefit the organization by eliminating the need for consultation as anyone can just access the database and determine the best possible decision within a given situation.

Fraud is among the most widespread challenges facing government agencies both historically and at present. The problem here is that the agency has loopholes required for fraud to occur, and the only way to effectively handle the problem is by sealing off the loopholes and ensuring accountability at all levels (Radin, 2006). This will go back to the idea of team-based decisions. Rather than giving one person the power to decide on whom to give the relief items and money, the organization needs to put in place a whole team to vet and approve the authentic victims as they come to collect relief and insurance for their damaged property. This may entail having more employees on the ground, or it could simply require getting a cloud computing service that will be fed with information about residents of the affected area, and thus the employees can simply crosscheck to ensure that the claimant is on the database before handing out the relief material.

Analysis of the Factors That Would Affect the Implementation of the Recommendations by Using the Ethical Decision-Making Model

For a government agency like FEMA, the expectation is that the common good approach to ethical decision making is the most applicable one. Governments are known to keep secrets and be dishonest in the name of the common good, and although this is not right, it is the norm in our society. This means that the most influential factor in the implementation of the recommendations discussed above will be the politics of the organization and the country as a whole. When it comes to the need to respond to disasters and rescue lives, the necessity to save as many lives as possible takes prevalence over everything. The challenge, however, is in prioritizing and taking sides. On this front, it can be stated that government agencies will always take the side of the more powerful political party depending on the situation at hand. An example would be the pulling of FEMA out of the DHS, where the more powerful entities insisted on having FEMA under DHS despite severe opposition. Ideally, the organization needs to be motivated by the need to prevent disasters, prepare for them, and respond to them. Any activity that goes contrary to these objectives should be considered as unethical based on the specific circumstances within which they occur.

Description of the Outcomes Expected if FEMA Implemented Recommendations

If the recommendations are implemented, the establishment will be exposed to the following outcomes.

Honesty being a basic requirement for one to work at FEMA will ensure that honesty as a trait is embedded into the organization’s corporate culture. A corporate culture determines the norms of a given organization, and with honesty being listed as one of FEMA’s priorities, there will be a real possibility that deontological ethical theories will prevail (Poister, 2003). The first expected outcome here would be the elimination of political and personal influences in the organization’s decisions. An organization like FEMA needs to be impartial at all times, and with the external influences eliminated, they will be able to serve the nation with justice and fairness.

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Team-based decision-making will, on the other hand, reduce the organization’s reliance on individual impulses amongst the higher ranking staff members. This would create a situation in which every member in the organization has an input in the decisions that are made herein (Radin, 2006). The expected outcome is that the organization will be able to move forward uniformly seeing as everyone’s opinion is respected and valued. This is not only an enabler of ethical conduct but also a motivator within the organization. It will thus significantly increase the organization’s productivity.

A decision support system based on knowledge management will propel the organization into the ranks of successful business organizations that use technology to ensure effective processes within the establishment. Using evidence to influence decisions ensures that the possibility of a mistake is minimal at all times seeing as all the decisions are backed by the organization’s previous experiences (Poister, 2003). The expected outcome here is not only a shorter decision making time, but also a much effective decision making system that can be supported by real evidence.

Generally, the aim of the recommendations is to improve the organization’s ethical conduct without compromising their independence or effectiveness, considering how important the organization is to the nation. If the recommendations are implemented, the organization will be able to upgrade in terms of the effectiveness and efficiency of its activities.

How the Ethical Issues Are Related to Human Rights, Equality, and Justice

FEMA’s main objective is to save lives by responding promptly to disasters and funding training programs within the states. The idea here is to keep the American citizens safe from disasters, and when these are inevitable, the organization has to rescue the affected populations and provide them with relief for their loss, especially in terms of food, shelter, and medicine as well as psychological or emotional support to deal with their losses.

When the organization has people who make decisions based on their political or ideological affiliations instead of organizational goals and objectives, the public is deprived of the protection that they are entitled to (Flynn, 2014). If, for example, the administrators at FEMA decide to channel the organization’s budget towards the training programs in one part of the country at the expense of a rescue mission in another part, they will be violating the concept of equality by prioritizing the safety of one group of citizens over that of another.

When the administrators are, on the other hand, guided by their personal interests, they are likely to deprive the public of justice in that certain individuals get to protect their own interests while the rest of the population is left to suffer the effects of a disaster. An example here displays a situation when the employees decide to favor one project over another due to the fact that they have vested interests in the affected area. This leaves a lot of people with the necessity to protect themselves on their own, yet it is the organization’s mandate to protect them from disaster.

With the issue of fraud, it can be noted that most of the true victims ended up not receiving any aid after the disaster. This act is a clear violation of the basic human rights that include being provided with food, shelter, and medicine (Flynn, 2014). The fact that other people received benefit even though they had not suffered the loss implies the need to re-evaluate our humanity as people.


When a public organization fails to follow the ethical standards set for the public sector, it does not just affect the organization’s reputation but also the public who depends on it and its services. This means that public sector ethics should not just be an interesting subject under political ethics but rather a guide on how to conduct oneself. FEMA is a big organization with federal responsibilities that transcend state borders. They are in charge of saving lives by responding promptly to disasters that would otherwise be catastrophic as they go beyond the capacity and expertise of the local and state authorities. Consequently, FEMA has great responsibilities, and in order to fulfill them and avoid exposing the American public to dangers due to unpreparedness, the organization will need to embrace some practical ethical theories, including deontological theories and utilitarianism. They will also have to adopt transparency and technology in order to ensure effective decision making that is unbiased and most effective.

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