FEMA 2021 CX Profile

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Individual Assistance Disaster Relief Programs

Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Homeland Security

Each year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency helps hundreds of thousands of people recover after disasters, providing critical emergency services, financial support and other assistance.

While this support helps disaster survivors get back on their feet, the process of applying for and receiving FEMA support can be complicated and difficult to navigate, especially considering that many applicants are dealing with a crisis and facing considerable stress.

According to FEMA staff, one of the biggest opportunities to improve disaster assistance is by providing clearer information to potential applicants—for example, helping people understand what they need to submit to prove their eligibility, what support is available from FEMA and other organizations, and if a claim is denied, a clear explanation of why. To address these challenges, the agency is training its field staff to more clearly explain the requirements to apply for assistance, and is working on rewriting communications, such as denial letters, to more clearly explain next steps to customers. FEMA is also reviewing and updating some of its policies to ensure that documentation requirements are equitable.

FEMA is also taking action to improve its home inspection processes—an important step people go through before receiving assistance. In 2020 and 2021, the agency piloted and expanded remote video and telephone inspection processes to adapt to the challenges of operating amid the coronavirus pandemic, and help people verify their damage and get assistance more quickly. These remote inspections enable FEMA to conduct some inspections without needing to send an inspector into the disaster-impacted area, improving FEMA’s ability to conduct inspections as soon as 24 hours after receiving an application.

Service Overview

The Federal Emergency Management Agency assists people before, during and after disasters—helping them stay safe, protecting property during disasters and helping them recover afterwards. Within FEMA, the Individual Assistance programs provide financial aid and direct services that include housing and counseling support directly to disaster survivors. The program is intended to meet basic needs and help residents get back on their feet. 

Primary customers

People in communities affected by disasters.

Key services provided to applicants

  • Acceptance and processing of applications for disaster assistance.
  • Inspections of homes and other property to assess damage and verify eligibility for assistance.
  • Temporary housing for eligible survivors through direct or financial housing assistance that includes rental assistance, lodging expense reimbursement, home repair or replacement.
  • Financial assistance for disaster-related costs such as property damage, medical expenses, funeral assistance, childcare and transportation.
  • Crisis counseling, disaster unemployment benefits, legal services and disaster case management services.

Service Snapshot (all data calendar year 2020) 

  • 104 major disaster declarations, up from 61 in 2019.
  • 559,900 registrations for Individual Assistance.1
  • 10.2 million visits to DisasterAssistance.gov.
  • 1.3 million calls to FEMA call centers.
  • 75,400 in-person visits to disaster recovery centers.


Data Highlights2

of respondents to FEMA’s survey said they were satisfied with the overall home inspection experience.

said FEMA financial assistance arrived in a reasonable amount of time.

said FEMA met their customer expectations.


Customer Experience Insights

Remote property inspections, launched out of necessity during the pandemic, are helping disaster survivors get easier access to inspections to verify damages.

A key step in applying for disaster assistance is having a FEMA inspector assess the damage. In some major disasters when many inspections are needed, it can take a week or more to get an inspector to a property. With inspectors unable to enter homes starting in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, FEMA used this crisis as an opportunity to transform the process to make inspections more accessible, convenient and faster for customers to obtain.

In 2020, the agency began piloting remote inspections where a customer speaks with a FEMA inspector over the phone or through a video call and walks through their home to show or describe the damage.

According to FEMA staff, the key to making this process work was translating the agency’s complicated inspection protocols into something that would be easy to understand for people who are not experts. FEMA developed a new questionnaire to help guide inspectors interviewing applicants, translating more technical questions like “How high above grade was the water?” to something simpler such as, “Was the water at your ankles, your knees, or higher?” The agency then used historical data to estimate the proper award based on flooding of a certain depth.

For some storms in 2020, such as Hurricane Laura, FEMA was able to conduct many remote inspections within 24 hours of receiving an application for assistance and distribute aid to many customers within three days of the disaster declaration. By contrast, wait times for in-person inspections in previous years could range from a week to up to 40 days.

Some applicants for assistance believe that FEMA could be more effective in setting and meeting customer expectations.

The process of applying for assistance and rules about how funds are distributed can be complicated, and potential applicants don’t always understand what they need to submit to prove their eligibility or why a claim was denied. FEMA is working to provide clearer information to applicants up front. This includes spelling out what documents or evidence is needed to verify that an individual lives at a property, and FEMA is training field staff on how to provide this information more clearly when speaking to potential applicants. The agency is also updating the language in the benefit denial letters it sends to provide more information if a claim is denied about why and what additional steps the applicant can take.

 

Increased coordination with other agencies and private sector entities would help improve access to support and create a better experience for applicants.

After experiencing a disaster, individuals must navigate a complex web of organizations that provide support. This includes insurance companies, non-profit organizations, multiple federal agencies and state and local organizations. They are often unsure of where to turn first. For example, obtaining some FEMA support may require applying to private insurance companies or the Small Business Administration first—and disaster survivors often must provide the same documentation over and over to prove eligibility for aid separately to all of these organizations.

To begin addressing these challenges, FEMA collaborated with other federal agencies to develop a customer journey map to outline the experience of working across agencies and to identify customer issues that could be resolved through better coordination. Using this research, FEMA is now working with other agencies, like the Small Business Administration, to identify areas where processes could be streamlined to reduce the burden on customers.

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Case Study: Delivering Disaster Assistance Equitably

Disasters are complex events that do not impact all people in the same way. Underserved communities are often among the most adversely affected by natural disasters because of several interrelated factors. These include living in areas prone to disasters, living in substandard housing, lacking time and resources to prepare and recover, the absence of disaster insurance and the inability to prove property ownership. Although disparities in how communities and individuals experience disasters and emergencies have been increasingly recognized, government policies related to disaster preparedness, response and recovery do not yet fully take systemic vulnerabilities into account.

FEMA is focused on increasing equal access to its services for its diverse customer base. According to FEMA’s equity statement, the agency is “using equity as a lens to drive response operations and deliver better services,” and will develop its 2022-2026 strategic plan “with equity as a foundational priority for the coming years.”  

Since 2010, FEMA has had an office dedicated to serving disaster survivors with disabilities – the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination. This office provides guidance to the FEMA Administrator and develops and provides resources, training and technical assistance to FEMA staff and state, local, territorial, tribal and non-profit partners who serve people with disabilities. The office’s goal is to integrate the needs of people with disabilities throughout the disaster lifecycle—from emergency preparedness through response, recovery and mitigation.  

As part of its work to ensure equity in the delivery of disaster assistance, FEMA has been examining its programs and processes to identify policy changes to decrease barriers. One of the agency’s most recent equity-driven policy changes involves allowing for more flexibility in ownership and occupancy documentation used for disaster assistance applications. This greatly benefits people from historically underserved communities whose homes were passed down from generation to generation without filing legal paperwork. FEMA has also made additional policy changes to improve equity, such as conducting inspections for applicants who still have identity or ownership verification pending and providing additional support to help those customers meet these requirements.   

Leading Customer Experience Practices

The Partnership and Accenture developed the following list of practices to understand how agencies prioritize the customer experience, and steps they can take to improve. The list is based on research about effective customer experience practices in both government and the private sector, and aligns with practices in a customer experience maturity self-assessment for agencies developed by the Office of Management and Budget. 

Organizational Commitment

Organizational Commitment

A strong commitment and plan from agency leaders to prioritize customer experience is essential for sustained progress.

The agency:

1. Includes high-quality customer experience in its strategic goals.   

Yes

FEMA’s 2018-2022 strategic plan includes a goal to reduce the complexity of FEMA’s processes, and specifically mentions improving the survivor experience.

2. Specifies customer feedback as a key measure of the organization’s performance.

Yes

Yes, the Department of Homeland Security performance plan includes a performance measure on customer satisfaction with the FEMA Individual Assistance program.

3. Has a senior executive with the responsibility and authority to lead efforts to improve the customer experience across the organization.

Ease of Customer Interactions

Ease of Customer Interactions

Interactions with the federal government should be easy, transparent and designed around user needs.

For the most common services provided, customers can:

1. Complete common transactions using the service delivery channel of their choice.  

Yes

Customers can apply for the Individual Assistance program online, in FEMA’s mobile app, by calling the agency, or by visiting a Disaster Recovery Center.

2. Obtain status updates through online self-service. 

Yes

Customers can receive updates on the status of their application on DisasterAssistance.gov.

3. Receive a response to feedback or answers to questions over social media.

Partially

FEMA occasionally responds to customer questions on Twitter and Facebook.

4. Access online information and support in languages other than English.

Yes

Content and services on DisasterAssistance.gov are fully available in Spanish, and some information about services is available in 25 additional languages.

Listening to Customers and Acting on Feedback

Listening to Customers and Acting on Feedback

To understand and prioritize customer needs, agencies should collect, publish, analyze and act on feedback.

The agency:

  1. Collects meaningful customer experience data across interactions and service delivery channels and shares it with the public.
Yes

FEMA collects and publicly shares customer experience data on the process of applying for assistance, in line with OMB guidance.

2. Collects and analyzes first-hand customer feedback to understand customers’ experiences, based on their own words.

3. Aggregates and analyzes customer feedback across channels and programs, and shares feedback with relevant staff members so they can act on it.

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Footnotes and Methodology

Footnotes

  1. Registrations include all completed applications for Individual Assistance.
  2. All data for fiscal year 2020. Feedback is captured by FEMA across three surveys: an initial survey after registration is completed; a contact survey after an applicant contacts FEMA’s helpline, checks their case online, visits a disaster recovery center or receives an inspection; and a final survey after a decision is made on the applicant’s case. Percentages represent the percentage of respondents answering 4 and 5 on a five-point scale.

Customer experience indicators methodology

The Partnership and Accenture developed the following list of practices to understand how agencies prioritize the customer experience, and steps they can take to improve. The list is based on research about effective customer experience practices in government and the private sector, and aligns with practices in a customer experience maturity self-assessment for agencies developed by the Office of Management and Budget.

Organizational Commitment

A strong commitment and plan from agency leaders to prioritize customer experience is essential for sustained progress.

The agency:

  1. Includes high-quality customer experience in its strategic goals.
    • Criteria: a) customer experience with the agency’s services is listed in the strategic plan as one of the organization’s top priorities, or a supporting goal of one of the priorities b) the strategic plan provides specific actions the agency will take to improve customer experience 
  2. Specifies customer feedback as a key measure of the organization’s performance.
    • Criteria: There is a performance measure included in the agency’s strategic plan, annual performance report or agency priority goals that is based on feedback directly from customers. 
  3. Has a senior executive with the responsibility and authority to lead efforts to improve the customer experience across the organization.
    • Criteria: Based on a review of the agency’s organizational chart and online descriptions of leadership positions, the agency has an executive who meets the following criteria: a) customer experience is that executive’s primary responsibility b) the executive reports to the head of the organization or a deputy c) the executive’s work spans all major service delivery channels (e.g., online services, contact centers, face-to-face services).

Ease of Customer Interactions

Interactions with the federal government should be easy, transparent and designed around user needs.

For the most common services provided, customers can:

  1. Complete common transactions using the service delivery channel of their choice.
    • Criteria: Based on a review of the agency’s website, customers have multiple options to complete common transactions including going online, calling, using webchat and visiting field offices or other physical locations. 
  2. Obtain status updates through online self-service.
    • Criteria: customers can get real-time updates through an online self-service channel that provides estimated timelines.
  3. Receive a response to feedback or answers to questions over social media.
    • Criteria: Does the agency respond to questions through the direct message feature on Facebook and Twitter, or in the comment section of posts? To assess this, we examined social media posts on the service’s primary account across a three-month period. “No” indicates the agency never or rarely responds to comments; “partially” indicates the agency responds sometimes, but not consistently; and “yes” indicates the agency responds to comments on a frequent and consistent basis.
  4. Access online information and support in languages other than English.
    • Criteria: “No” indicates content is available only in English and translation features are not available on the website; “partially” indicates that some content or services are available in English and Spanish; “yes” indicates that content or services are available in English and Spanish and additional languages.

Listening to Customers and Acting on Feedback

To understand and prioritize customer needs, agencies should collect, publish, analyze and act on feedback.

The agency:

  1. Collects meaningful customer experience data across interactions and service delivery channels and shares it with the public.
    • Criteria: In alignment with the Office of Management and Budget’s guidance on customer experience measurement, the agency shares customer feedback with the public and that: a) represents multiple service delivery channels b) provides details into different aspects of the experience (i.e., beyond overall customer satisfaction)
  2. Collects and analyzes first-hand customer feedback to understand customers’ experiences, based on their own words.
    • Criteria: In alignment with Office of Management and Budget’s guidance on customer experience measurement, in customer or user research such as interviews, focus groups, surveys and other feedback mechanisms, customers can describe their experiences in their own words, and the agency has automated analytic capabilities to identify and act on insights that emerge from customer feedback data.
  3. Aggregates and analyzes customer feedback across channels and programs, and shares feedback with relevant staff members so they can act on it.
    • Criteria: Agency has an automated system to collect feedback across multiple channels and programs into a centralized location, analyze it for insights, and share those insights with relevant agency business owners or other appropriate colleagues responsible for taking action. The agency also tracks the impact of actions taken in response to customer feedback.

This customer experience profile was produced in collaboration with Accenture Federal Services.