Official U.S. Representation at Government-Sponsored Public Policy Forums
GAO-06-89R: Published: Oct 21, 2005. Publicly Released: Oct 21, 2005.
The U.S. government annually sponsors thousands of conferences, symposiums, seminars, and other policy-related forums that involve individuals and organizations from outside the U.S. government. These forums present opportunities for U.S. and foreign audiences to discuss public policy issues and are designed to advance U.S. government interests. For example, some forums are intended to educate participants about official U.S. government positions and policies on issues of public concern, such as the war in Iraq, development of alternative energy sources, human trafficking, and protection of endangered species. Other forums serve as venues for soliciting input on policy issues from the public and from selected external experts, including academics, scientists, journalists, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations. Congress requested information on these forums, noting that official U.S. representation at the forums is important for ensuring that they achieve their objectives. This letter provides information on forums sponsored by the Departments of State, Defense, Energy, and Interior from 2001 through 2004. For the policy-related forums sponsored by these four departments, we (1) determined the extent to which U.S. government officials participated in the forums, and (2) identified the departmental policies and procedures governing participation by U.S. officials at these events.
The Departments of State, Defense, Energy, and Interior sponsored a wide variety of policy forums from 2001 through 2004 as part of their programs and missions within the United States and throughout the world. The four departments' data showed that U.S. officials participated in virtually all of these events. For example, of the approximately 8,800 policy forums the Department of State (State) reported sponsoring during this period, about 97 percent were attended by U.S. government officials from State or another federal agency; the remaining forums did not include a U.S. government official, primarily due to personnel and resource constraints. According to the public affairs officer at the U.S. embassy in France, for instance, the increased demand for speakers to discuss U.S. policies on terrorism had been particularly heavy, precluding embassy officials from accompanying some guest experts before French audiences. In these cases, the public affairs officers determined that the objectives of the forum could be met without official U.S. government representation. State public diplomacy officials do not believe that the relatively small number of events held without official U.S. participation posed an undue risk to State's foreign policy goals. The Departments of Defense, Energy, and Interior, which sponsored thousands of forums during this period, each reported fewer than five instances in which no U.S. official participated in policy forums they sponsored. While official representation at policy forums does not guarantee that government policies and positions were presented, each of the four departments reported that U.S. officials were nearly always on hand to speak on behalf of the government if it was necessary and appropriate. None of the four departments had written policies requiring U.S. officials to attend or actively promote U.S. policies and positions at government-sponsored forums. However, departmental policies and practices were designed to ensure that such forums did not undermine the departments' missions. For example, State has rules and operating guidance in place that are intended to prevent department-sponsored speakers from misrepresenting U.S. policies and positions, such as requiring many guest speakers to be vetted by the department's International Information Programs office. Also, the Department of Defense (DOD) requires its agencies to ensure that all forums co-sponsored with nonfederal entities are closely related to DOD's missions. Existing policies and procedures at the departments were aimed at limiting the costs--particularly travel costs--associated with larger forums rather than ensuring a minimum level of U.S. participation at all forums. Specifically, three of the four agencies required special high-level management review for events involving the travel of 25 to 30 or more attendees.