Accountability for handling funds, distributing other resources, identifying needed services, and ensuring that they are delivered to those in need can be problematic in the context of an emergency. In that context, there is clearly a trade-off between accountability and flexibility. The issue relates both to the ability of responders to document their efforts and the proclivity of oversight bodies to require it. But if FBCOs beyond the traditional providers are to play a prominent role in future disaster relief, particularly in the direct distribution of goods and services to disaster victims, mechanisms for increasing accountability are of particular importance.
During the initial emergency, when the interest was in getting funds and donations distributed and services available as quickly as possible, detailed records on whom organizations were serving or how much cash or other units of service were being distributed may not have been kept. Some in the field noted that oversight took a back seat in the emergency response because of the magnitude of need. For those FBCOs that had oversight structures, many of those bodies took a step back specifically to allow for more flexibility in the delivery of assistance after the storms. In the words of one respondent: We had guidelines that our agencies have to adhere to. Our board has established these policies....When it came to Katrina, though, all bets were off. As another remarked, it was so easy to help people in the days after the storm because there were so few restrictions on funds. As time went on, he noted, helping people became harder because of an increasing number of rules.
Most sites that provided services beyond emergency relief had some oversight structure in place, though the level of oversight varied widely. In three sites, interviewees noted that they reported funding and expenditures and major service decisions (e.g., setting up a shelter or a point of distribution) to an oversight body. However, only two of the eight organizations studied were held explicitly accountable for the populations they were serving. One problem may be that the development of new and untried approaches to relief, as the magnitude of the disaster demanded, made it challenging to define service units or desired outcomes. One site was given broad discretion by funders and the board, and though it meticulously documented its efforts, it could not get more guidance on whether it was using funds in ways desired by the funders, for example in identifying needs or choice of services.
As the disaster response transitioned to longer-term recovery activities, accounting for those activities was more common. Long-term recovery structures generally maintained oversight on funding and eligibility criteria as prescribed by the board or membership organizations on these committees. Two interviewees who worked in long-term recovery structures, however, complained that committees lacked transparency because of low member participation and confidentiality strictures on resource allocations among individual cases that came before them.
The massive influx of donations created its own challenges, including competition and turf battles. In one case, a local faith-based organization accused another of hoarding donations and not distributing resources equitably among other faith-based organizations in the area, though the accusation may have been more a result of envy than mismanagement of funds.
In three sites, the principal reason for working outside formal long-term recovery structures was the ability to help more people without the burden of red tape and bureaucracy. One government official attributed his success to putting a high premium on flexibility, remarking, Dont ask questions; ask forgiveness. Another echoed the sentiment, saying there was a need for flex rules when dealing with a crisis, and that both FEMA and the Red Cross lacked the ability to move quickly because of their more rigid and rule-bound structures.