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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
A strong commitment and plan from agency leaders to prioritize customer experience is essential for sustained progress.
1. Includes high-quality customer experience in its strategic goals.
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, 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
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.
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.
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.
FEMA occasionally responds to customer questions on Twitter and Facebook.
4. Access online information and support in languages other than English.
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
To understand and prioritize customer needs, agencies should collect, publish, analyze and act on feedback.
- Collects meaningful customer experience data across interactions and service delivery channels and shares it with the public.
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.