FEMA’s customer service approach to new DisasterAssistance.gov

With every major weather event — from Hurricanes Sandy to Joaquin — the Federal Emergency Management Agency is learning more about what its customers need in the wake of a major storm.

The feedback and data it collects from disaster survivors are beginning to inform  the way FEMA re-engineers DisasterAssistance.gov.

The new version of DisasterAssistance should be finished in the next two years, said Karole Johns, deputy director of FEMA’s Recovery Technologies Program division,  during a panel discussion at the Association for Talent Development’s Government Workforce Conference in Washington Sept. 10.

On the current site, survivors who in live in Florida, for example, and get hit by multiple hurricanes in one season, must enter their personal information on DisasterAssistance.gov for each major storm.

“We associate who you are with this master event,” Johns said. “That’s completely backward in a customer service centered perspective. As we re-engineer, the survivor will be at the center of our process. The first time you come to DisasterAssistance.gov, we’re going to take you through a questionnaire, where we’re going to funnel down your needs.”

The site then will prompt survivors to answer other questions based on their earlier responses. From there, survivors will create an account and then answer another series of questions about their specific needs.

“It’s amazing the things you can learn about what people want and how their minds work when they’re in a traumatized state by following the path of what they click on the site,” Johns said.

The re-engineering project is part of the agency’s Disaster Assistance Improvement Program, which FEMA stood up in 2007, after an executive order mandated the agency work on its recovery and assistance programs in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

When a major storm hits, the last thing survivors want to think about is which federal agency they’ll need to go to for help, Johns said. Instead, FEMA is looking at the data analytics on its sites to learn more about what their customers are looking for.

“We’re trying to group everything — all the questions that we ask around needs that they can communicate to us — so they don’t have to worry about, am I registering with FEMA, am I registering with FBA, who am I registering with. They know they’re registering with housing assistance. They know they’re registering for medical assistance,” she said.

In the future, Johns hopes FEMA can utilize MyUSA.gov, so its customers can create a single, government log-in.

Justin Johnson, executive director of the Chief Human Capital Officer’s Council, said it’s one the complaints he hears most often about government.

“Wouldn’t it be great if you could have a single government log-in that would have some of that information stored in it?” he said. “When you come to BusinessUSA.gov, that same information comes up. When you go to DisasterAssistance.gov, in the event you’re involved in a disaster, that same information will be readily available.”

As FEMA makes more progress on DisasterAssistance, the goal is to use a “catch and release” theory for the data it collects about its individual customers,” Johns said.

“We hope that if they can make that happen, [MyUSA] will become our account,” she said. “So we will house zero data. We will take the critical information from MyUSA.gov — your personal identifiable information — suck that in, associate it with your needs, capture all the data around your losses, shoot that out to all our partners, and we own nothing.”

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