Department of Commerce:

Office of Manufacturing and Services Could Better Measure and Communicate Its Contributions to Trade Policy

GAO-11-583: Published: Jun 7, 2011. Publicly Released: Jul 7, 2011.

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Declining U.S. manufacturing has been an issue of continuing concern for policymakers; this was reflected in the Obama Administration's (Administration) 2010 announcement of the National Export Initiative. The Administration has also shown interest in improving the efficiency of the federal support of trade operations. In 2004, the Office of Manufacturing and Services (MAS) was established within the Department of Commerce's (Commerce) International Trade Administration (ITA) to enhance the global competitiveness of U.S. industry. GAO was asked to examine (1) MAS's goals and activities and how they compare with those of other government entities; (2) how MAS prioritizes its activities and targets its resources; and (3) the extent to which MAS tracks and reports its efforts. GAO reviewed agency documents and interviewed officials from MAS, other parts of ITA and Commerce, and other agencies..

MAS's primary goal is to support the competitiveness of U.S. industry, which it does largely through combining its industry and trade expertise to support other parts of Commerce, including other parts of the ITA and external U.S. government clients, such as the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR). The major activities of MAS's offices include: collection and dissemination of data on U.S. industry and trade, production of analyses on policies that can affect competitiveness, and identification and resolution of overseas trade barriers. While some activities may seem similar to those of other agencies, such as USTR, officials from MAS's client agencies stated that MAS's combination of industry and trade expertise is not readily available to them elsewhere in the government. MAS has undertaken an internal review to update its mission and priorities regarding activities and clients and has proposed changes currently under departmental review. MAS does not have a mechanism to systematically monitor analysts' workload or the amount of time spent on requests for different clients. The absence of workload data may hinder its ability to effectively allocate its resources to address the needs of the trade policy process. Further, MAS's role has not been clearly communicated, and ITA's Web site provides limited information about MAS. Consequently, the public and Congress have limited information about MAS's activities and contributions to policy making. MAS's ability to meet its performance targets largely depends on actions from other government agencies and other parties, making isolating its contributions difficult. MAS developed a series of steps, or milestones, to help isolate its contributions to trade policy outcomes, although officials acknowledged continuing challenges. Further, MAS does not systematically obtain feedback on its performance from the agencies to which it provides analysis, nor does it track its contributions to major policy decisions that fall outside its externally reported performance targets. This makes it difficult to assess the extent to which MAS's work adds value to the trade policy process. GAO recommends that the Secretary of Commerce take actions, in concert with MAS, to finalize MAS's focusing of mission and priorities, systematically monitor workload, and more systematically obtain and communicate information on the value MAS adds to the trade policy process. In its comments, Commerce concurred with the findings and recommendations and expects to make progress by October 2011.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: At the beginning of fiscal year 2014, the International Trade Administration (ITA), of which MAS was part, consolidated its functions, as spelled out in the Department of Commerce's Department Organizational Order 40-1. ITA's MAS unit was consolidated with other existing offices under the new name Industry and Analysis (I&A). Thus, MAS's specific efforts to clarify its mission was overtaken by ITA's consolidation and MAS's restructuring into I&A. We note, however, that some greater clarity concerning activities and missions of staff moving from MAS into the new I&A appears to have occurred as a part of the reorganization process.

    Recommendation: To better assure MAS is meeting the needs of its clients, and to facilitate MAS's efforts to prioritize its activities, the Secretary of Commerce, in concert with MAS management, should establish time frames to finalize the clarification of MAS's mission and decision criteria.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: As of September 2014, GAO is awaiting further information from Commerce on what actions they have taken to address this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To better assure MAS is meeting the needs of its clients, and to better enable MAS to target its resources, the Secretary of Commerce, in concert with MAS management, should ensure MAS has a way to more systematically monitor how staff time is allocated across various efforts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Commerce concurred with the recommendation. After the issuance of the GAO report, in August 2011, MAS officials told GAO that they would be collaborating with ITA on a new website and agreed that it should clearly communicate MAS' mission and priorities, which they reiterated in a September 2011 letter to GAO (the 60-day letter). At the beginning of fiscal year 2014, MAS was consolidated with other existing offices under the new name Industry and Analysis (I&A). A March 2014 document outlines ITA's digital communications plan, which includes timeframes for updating content, including for I&A.

    Recommendation: To better assure MAS is meeting the needs of its clients, and to improve transparency and ensure that priorities are consistent with those of key stakeholders, the Secretary of Commerce, in concert with MAS management, should explore methods for MAS to more clearly communicate its mission, priorities, and activities to clients, stakeholders, the public, and Congress. These methods could include, among others, working with ITA leadership to develop a strategic plan with associated time frames to improve ITA's web presence and management.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: As of September 2014, GAO is awaiting further information from Commerce on what actions they have taken to address this recommendation.

    Recommendation: In order to ascertain whether MAS is meeting the needs of its government clients involved in the trade policy process, the Secretary of Commerce, in concert with MAS management, should explore ways to more systematically obtain information on the value it is adding. This could include collecting feedback from its clients on its activities more systematically and tracking the outcomes of the analyses it provides for major trade policy decisions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

 

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