International Trade:

Further Improvements Needed to Handle Growing Workload for Monitoring and Enforcing Trade Agreements

GAO-05-537: Published: Jun 30, 2005. Publicly Released: Jul 26, 2005.

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The vast majority of U.S. exports are covered by at least one trade agreement. Ensuring that U.S. companies can take advantage of the market opportunities created by trade agreements has therefore become a critical responsibility for U.S. government agencies. GAO examined U.S. government efforts to monitor and enforce trade agreements. Specifically, GAO (1) reviewed how the nature and scope of U.S. trade agreements has changed in the last 10 years and what effect changes had on agencies' monitoring and enforcement workload, (2) evaluated how U.S. government agencies monitor and enforce trade agreements, and (3) analyzed how the U.S. government allocates resources for monitoring and enforcement of trade agreements within the context of other trade activities.

The number and scope of trade agreements have grown significantly in recent years, increasing the monitoring and enforcement workload for federal agencies. For example, membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) has grown over 30 percent in the past 10 years. In addition, trade agreements increasingly cover complex subjects like intellectual property and technical standards. As a result, the amount of work needed to ensure countries comply with such agreements has increased. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) and the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and State generally monitor market access issues brought to the agencies' attention by complaints from the private sector or that they identify themselves. They also monitor countries' compliance with certain trade agreements. Over the past 5 years, agencies with trade responsibilities have taken steps to improve their ability to address compliance issues. However, weaknesses still exist. For example, staff we spoke with in Washington, D.C., and at overseas posts told us that communication is sometimes inefficient. Moreover, Commerce staff do not always have access to complete information from overseas posts regarding compliance issues they are working on in those countries. Agency resources for handling compliance issues face growing demands. Competition with other activities, such as trade negotiations, and staffing and training limitations, all affect agencies' ability to effectively monitor and enforce trade agreements. For example, officials responsible for monitoring and enforcing trade agreements in all eight overseas posts we visited said that additional training would help them monitor and enforce trade agreements more effectively. Despite these constraints and agencies' shared responsibility for monitoring and enforcing trade agreements, agencies do not systematically coordinate their assessment or planning for future resource needs.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, and State should jointly develop a strategy for meeting the training needs of staff responsible for monitoring and enforcing trade agreements to better equip them to effectively handle increasingly complex or technical barriers to U.S. exports. This interagency strategy should include an assessment of what trade compliance training exists, what knowledge and skills will be necessary to effectively handle future trade compliance issues, and what additional training is required to provide staff with the necessary knowledge and skills.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2005, GAO reported on U.S. government efforts to monitor and enforce international trade agreements. In that report (INTERNATIONAL TRADE: Further Improvements Needed to Handle Growing Workload for Monitoring and Enforcing Trade Agreements, GAO-05-537), we found that effectively monitoring and enforcing trade agreements requires significant expertise, but agencies face constraints to developing and accessing such expertise. Specifically, we found that many officials responsible for monitoring and enforcing trade agreements had not attended training focusing on trade agreement compliance. In addition, officials in all eight countries we visited told us that additional training on monitoring and enforcing trade agreements would help them fulfill their responsibilities in this area more effectively. We concluded that, to the extent that some trade agency officials are not adequately trained to effectively monitor and enforce complex and technical trade agreements, they cannot provide effective service to U.S. exporters that face barriers in foreign markets. As a result, we recommended that the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, and State jointly develop a strategy for meeting the training needs of staff responsible for monitoring and enforcing trade agreements to better equip them to effectively handle increasingly complex or technical barriers to U.S. exports. In response to our recommendation, in fiscal year 2006, an Interagency Training Coordination Working Group (ITCWG) comprised of representatives from the Commerce, State, Agriculture and Labor Departments was formed. The group was created under U.S. Trade Representative's Compliance Task Force of the Trade Policy Staff Committee's (TPSC) Subcommittee on Monitoring and Enforcement to (1) improve the government's ability to identify and address foreign trade barriers and (2) to increase coordination on trade agreement compliance training. The group now meets approximately every three months. According to Commerce, the ITCWG group is currently developing an inter-agency On-Line Learning Resource Center and Virtual Toolkit.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, and State should jointly develop a strategy for meeting the training needs of staff responsible for monitoring and enforcing trade agreements to better equip them to effectively handle increasingly complex or technical barriers to U.S. exports. This interagency strategy should include an assessment of what trade compliance training exists, what knowledge and skills will be necessary to effectively handle future trade compliance issues, and what additional training is required to provide staff with the necessary knowledge and skills.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2005, GAO reported on U.S. government efforts to monitor and enforce international trade agreements. In that report (INTERNATIONAL TRADE: Further Improvements Needed to Handle Growing Workload for Monitoring and Enforcing Trade Agreements, GAO-05-537), we found that effectively monitoring and enforcing trade agreements requires significant expertise, but agencies face constraints to developing and accessing such expertise. Specifically, we found that many officials responsible for monitoring and enforcing trade agreements had not attended training focusing on trade agreement compliance. In addition, officials in all eight countries we visited told us that additional training on monitoring and enforcing trade agreements would help them fulfill their responsibilities in this area more effectively. We concluded that, to the extent that some trade agency officials are not adequately trained to effectively monitor and enforce complex and technical trade agreements, they cannot provide effective service to U.S. exporters that face barriers in foreign markets. As a result, we recommended that the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, and State jointly develop a strategy for meeting the training needs of staff responsible for monitoring and enforcing trade agreements to better equip them to effectively handle increasingly complex or technical barriers to U.S. exports. In response to our recommendation, in fiscal year 2006, an Interagency Training Coordination Working Group (ITCWG) comprised of representatives from the Commerce, State, Agriculture and Labor Departments was formed. The group was created under U.S. Trade Representative's Compliance Task Force of the Trade Policy Staff Committee's (TPSC) Subcommittee on Monitoring and Enforcement to (1) improve the government's ability to identify and address foreign trade barriers and (2) to increase coordination on trade agreement compliance training. The group now meets approximately every three months. According to Commerce, the ITCWG group is currently developing an inter-agency On-Line Learning Resource Center and Virtual Toolkit.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, and State should jointly develop a strategy for meeting the training needs of staff responsible for monitoring and enforcing trade agreements to better equip them to effectively handle increasingly complex or technical barriers to U.S. exports. This interagency strategy should include an assessment of what trade compliance training exists, what knowledge and skills will be necessary to effectively handle future trade compliance issues, and what additional training is required to provide staff with the necessary knowledge and skills.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2005, GAO reported on U.S. government efforts to monitor and enforce international trade agreements. In that report (INTERNATIONAL TRADE: Further Improvements Needed to Handle Growing Workload for Monitoring and Enforcing Trade Agreements, GAO-05-537), we found that effectively monitoring and enforcing trade agreements requires significant expertise, but agencies face constraints to developing and accessing such expertise. Specifically, we found that many officials responsible for monitoring and enforcing trade agreements had not attended training focusing on trade agreement compliance. In addition, officials in all eight countries we visited told us that additional training on monitoring and enforcing trade agreements would help them fulfill their responsibilities in this area more effectively. We concluded that, to the extent that some trade agency officials are not adequately trained to effectively monitor and enforce complex and technical trade agreements, they cannot provide effective service to U.S. exporters that face barriers in foreign markets. As a result, we recommended that the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, and State jointly develop a strategy for meeting the training needs of staff responsible for monitoring and enforcing trade agreements to better equip them to effectively handle increasingly complex or technical barriers to U.S. exports. In response to our recommendation, in fiscal year 2006, an Interagency Training Coordination Working Group (ITCWG) comprised of representatives from the Commerce, State, Agriculture and Labor Departments was formed. The group was created under U.S. Trade Representative's Compliance Task Force of the Trade Policy Staff Committee's (TPSC) Subcommittee on Monitoring and Enforcement to (1) improve the government's ability to identify and address foreign trade barriers and (2) to increase coordination on trade agreement compliance training. The group now meets approximately every three months. According to Commerce, the ITCWG group is currently developing an inter-agency On-Line Learning Resource Center and Virtual Toolkit.

    Recommendation: In order to improve efforts to monitor and enforce trade agreements so that U.S. companies are able to take full advantage of the trade agreements negotiated by the U.S. government, the Secretaries of Commerce and State should work together to facilitate communication between officials working on trade compliance issues. Such steps could include installing a secure cable in Commerce headquarters and encouraging State staff to send unclassified information regarding trade issues using unclassified systems.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of the U.S. Trade Representative

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2005, GAO issued a report assessing the U.S. government's efforts to monitor and enforce international trade agreements. In that report (INTERNATIONAL TRADE: Further Improvements Needed to Handle Growing Workload for Monitoring and Enforcing Trade Agreements, GAO-05-537), we note that several U.S. agencies participate in trade agreement monitoring and enforcement efforts. Among these are the Departments of Commerce and State, which have the largest number of staff dedicated to monitoring and enforcement efforts. We reported that communication between staff in Commerce and State can be difficult because of Commerce's limited access to the classified communication system that State sometimes uses to communicate information on trade issues. We concluded that unless agencies address communication issues, they may miss opportunities to open foreign markets to U.S. exports. As a result, we recommended that the Secretaries of Commerce and State work together to facilitate communication between officials working on trade compliance issues through steps such as installing a secure cable in Commerce headquarters. The Department of Commerce's Market Access and Compliance (MAC) unit has taken steps to respond to GAO's recommendations. One such step (taken in 2006) was enhancing access for staff in Commerce's International Trade Administration (ITA) to classified email. According to Commerce, there are currently about 40 users authorized to access the classified email system in ITA; all MAC Deputy Assistant Secretary offices have multiple individuals using accounts.

    Recommendation: In order to improve efforts to monitor and enforce trade agreements so that U.S. companies are able to take full advantage of the trade agreements negotiated by the U.S. government, the Secretaries of Commerce and State should work together to facilitate communication between officials working on trade compliance issues. Such steps could include installing a secure cable in Commerce headquarters and encouraging State staff to send unclassified information regarding trade issues using unclassified systems.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2005, GAO issued a report assessing the U.S. government's efforts to monitor and enforce international trade agreements. In that report (INTERNATIONAL TRADE: Further Improvements Needed to Handle Growing Workload for Monitoring and Enforcing Trade Agreements, GAO-05-537), we note that several U.S. agencies participate in trade agreement monitoring and enforcement efforts. Among these are the Departments of Commerce and State, which have the largest number of staff dedicated to monitoring and enforcement efforts. We reported that communication between staff in Commerce and State can be difficult because of Commerce's limited access to the classified communication system that State sometimes uses to communicate information on trade issues. We concluded that unless agencies address communication issues, they may miss opportunities to open foreign markets to U.S. exports. As a result, we recommended that the Secretaries of Commerce and State work together to facilitate communication between officials working on trade compliance issues through steps such as installing a secure cable in Commerce headquarters. The Department of Commerce's Market Access and Compliance (MAC) unit has taken steps to respond to GAO's recommendations. One such step (taken in 2006) was enhancing access for staff in Commerce's International Trade Administration (ITA) to classified email. According to Commerce, there are currently about 40 users authorized to access the classified email system in ITA; all MAC Deputy Assistant Secretary offices have multiple individuals using accounts.

    Recommendation: To most effectively utilize the unique talents and skills of each agency to meet monitoring and enforcement objectives, the U.S. Trade Representative should work with the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, State, and other trade agencies to develop and update as necessary an interagency strategy for assessing and planning for resource needs for monitoring and enforcing trade agreements.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In August 2008, USTR indicated that it was developing a survey that it planned to administer to members of the Trade Policy Staff Committee (which includes the agencies cited in the recommendation). It said the survey would solicit views on budgets and resources needed for monitoring and enforcement and needed improvements to the overall process. The survey was deployed and included questions to help understand the level of resources expended by each agency to monitor and enforce trade agreements and to identify the skill sets needed for this function. USTR analyzed the survey results. Its analysis was discussed at a November 2008 meeting of the Trade Policy Staff Committee's Subcommittee on Monitoring and Enforcement, and the interagency Compliance Task Force was directed to follow-up on the results.

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