Trade Agencies Should Enhance Collaboration with State and Local Partners
GAO-14-393: Published: May 21, 2014. Publicly Released: Jun 4, 2014.
What GAO Found
Federal and state governments share a common interest in promoting exports as a tool for economic growth and creating jobs. Both provide similar and overlapping export promotion services to similar clients, but their staffing, budgetary resources, and ways of measuring performance vary. Located across the country, Department of Commerce (Commerce), Small Business Administration (SBA), and state trade offices provide outreach, counseling and training, and trade leads, mostly to small businesses. In some states, state trade offices have more domestic staff than Commerce offices do. However, Commerce provides more overall coverage abroad, with offices in 72 countries, 15 of which have no state trade office representation. In the five states GAO visited, federal and state collaboration on export promotion varied from working closely in the same location to not collaborating at all, depending on unique factors in each state.
The federal interagency Trade Promotion Coordinating Committee (TPCC) has three initiatives designed to advance federal-state collaboration in promoting U.S. exports by strengthening and expanding networks of state and local governments and other partners. Results of these efforts have been limited, however, in part because their implementation has not consistently followed key collaboration practices. In prior work, GAO found that collaboration is generally enhanced by following key practices, such as articulating common outcomes; agreeing on roles and responsibilities; monitoring, evaluating, and reporting on results; and coordinating resource planning. In the states it visited, GAO found weaknesses in the implementation of Export Outreach Teams, a TPCC initiative. For example, in some cases, activities were missing key participants and were inconsistent with the activities' objectives, in part because SBA is not fully monitoring implementation of the teams across its 68 district offices. Similarly, GAO found that TPCC's involvement in a Brookings Institution initiative to engage metropolitan areas in export promotion has unknown implications for federal export promotion efforts and resources because Commerce lacks a means to monitor the initiative's results. Finally, an agreement between Commerce (the TPCC Chair) and a national group representing state trade offices expired without achieving its collaboration objective or enhancing client information sharing so states can share credit with Commerce for helping companies make export sales. According to Commerce, by law, it cannot release its clients' confidential commercial information, and its policy is to make determinations on releasing information case by case, but it does not provide formal guidance to staff on what information sharing is allowable.
TPCC Initiatives to Promote Federal-State Collaboration in Export Promotion
Why GAO Did This Study
The 2010 National Export Initiative calls for the federal government to coordinate more with state and local governments and other public and private partners on export promotion. Recently, the TPCC identified three key initiatives to enhance collaboration among federal, state, and other partners. Congress requested that GAO review federal and state collaboration in export promotion.
This report examines (1) the main characteristics of federal and state export promotion efforts, including their collaboration, and (2) the extent to which the TPCC has advanced collaboration between state and federal efforts. GAO analyzed federal and state documents and data from 2012 and 2013; interviewed officials from federal, state, and other export promotion organizations; and visited federal and state trade offices and other relevant organizations in five states selected as a nongeneralizable sample based on their participation in the TPCC initiatives and other factors.
What GAO Recommends
GAO recommends that the TPCC take steps consistent with key practices for collaboration to (1) improve implementation of the Export Outreach Teams to better achieve their intended objectives; (2) enhance TPCC agencies' collaboration on export promotion with nonfederal entities; and (3) enhance federal information sharing with state trade offices, where possible, on Commerce's export promotion activities, for example, by providing formal guidance to staff on allowable information sharing. Commerce and SBA agreed with GAO's recommendations.
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Recommendations for Executive Action
Comments: In response to GAO's May 2014 report, the Department of Commerce (Commerce) notified GAO that it did not fully concur with this recommendation, preferring instead to maintain a case-by-case approach rather than issuing more formal guidance on federal information sharing with state trade offices. Commerce stated that a case-by-case approach provided more flexibility. According to Commerce, as of March 2016, the agency was in the process of implementing a new client relationship management system. Commerce officials said that as future iterations of this system and public websites come online, they would seek to identify ways for clients to give permission to release information useful to other federal agencies, state trade offices, and other local service providers. However, Commerce's case-by-case approach is not consistent with key practices for enhancing federal information sharing. Therefore, Commerce should continue this effort to find ways to systematically share client information with state trade offices. Without greater information sharing in the provision of similar services, Commerce will likely be limited in its ability to help ensure that export promotion services are efficiently managed across federal and state efforts, and that resources are appropriately leveraged. In February 2016, the President signed The Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015, which requires that within a year of the Act's passing, Commerce must develop a federal-state export promotion coordination plan that addresses, among other things, information sharing between federal and state trade offices. The Act also requires Commerce and state trade agencies to develop a framework to share information on export successes, and report to Congress on this framework within a year of the law's enactment. GAO will continue to monitor the implementation of the Act's requirements. This recommendation is also included in GAO's Action Tracker, an online tool for monitoring the progress executive branch agencies and Congress have made in addressing the actions identified in GAO's annual reports on duplication, overlap, and fragmentation in the federal government.
Recommendation: To improve federal-state collaboration in providing export promotion services in accordance with the National Export Initiative, and the Export Enhancement Act of 1992, the Secretary of Commerce, as Chair of the TPCC, should take steps consistent with key practices to enhance, where possible, federal information sharing with state trade offices on Commerce's export promotion activities. This could include more formal guidance to Commerce staff regarding the circumstances, in light of legal restrictions, in which information can be shared with state trade offices and other nonfederal entities, and exploring ways for clients to give permission to release information useful to such nonfederal entities.
Agency Affected: Department of Commerce
Comments: After the issuance of GAO's May 2014 recommendation, the Department of Commerce (Commerce) notified GAO that, after consultation with the Small Business Administration (SBA), which co-leads the Export Outreach Teams (EOT), it would narrow the focus of the EOTs to outreach events with businesses rather than coordinating with federal and state trade agency partners. In GAO's April 2015 Annual Report on Additional Opportunities to Reduce Fragmentation, Overlap, and Duplication and Achieve Other Financial Benefits, GAO reiterated the original recommendation, and questioned Commerce and SBA's determination that EOTs would be more effective with a narrower focus. GAO believes that narrowing the focus would address only one of the program's two objectives, increasing awareness of available export resources. This approach would not address the second objective, enhancing interagency and intergovernmental collaboration. In March 2016, Commerce officials told GAO that they and SBA officials concluded that EOTs had resulted in a successful exchange of information on program development, technical expertise, and new initiatives that was valuable in beginning a conversation among various stakeholders and enhancing existing communication. As a result, Commerce and SBA determined that participation in EOTs is no longer a requirement for their local officials, and as such, do not plan to monitor the composition and meetings of the teams. Commerce and SBA officials added that SBA District and local Commercial Service officials can continue to use the EOT model going forward-- and in March 2016, Commerce noted that staff continue to participate in local EOTs, and that local Commerce staff annual performance appraisals include an element on coordination and interagency collaboration-- but because differences exist among communities across the nation, different collaborative mechanisms may be appropriate in different areas. However, because the EOT model brings together relevant stakeholders while allowing for adjustments made at the local level as needed, GAO maintains that the EOT model, as originally envisioned, is useful for achieving the goals of increasing awareness of export resources and enhancing collaboration across federal and state trade agencies. While Commerce has taken some steps to link interagency collaboration to employee performance, without a consistent model for and ongoing monitoring of collaboration efforts, Commerce and SBA officials will likely not have information that would help key decision makers within these agencies, as well as clients and stakeholders, to help ensure federal and state export promotion activities complement one another and make the best use of federal export promotion resources. This recommendation is also included in GAO's Action Tracker, an online tool for monitoring the progress executive branch agencies and Congress have made in addressing the actions identified in GAO's annual reports on duplication, overlap, and fragmentation in the federal government.
Recommendation: To improve federal-state collaboration in providing export promotion services in accordance with the National Export Initiative, and the Export Enhancement Act of 1992, the Secretary of Commerce, as Chair of the TPCC, should improve implementation of the Export Outreach Teams to better achieve their intended outcomes. This could include taking steps, including better monitoring, to ensure that key local participants are invited, that meetings are held as expected, and that the Export Outreach Teams seek to both increase awareness of available export resources and enhance interagency and intergovernmental collaboration.
Agency Affected: Department of Commerce
Comments: The Department of Commerce (Commerce) and the TPCC, which is responsible for providing a unified national framework for export promotion, have taken some steps in response to GAO's May 2014 recommendation to enhance federal-state collaboration in export promotion, but these steps have not included a designation of roles and responsibilities, joint planning, or leveraging of resources toward shared goals. For example, in March 2016, Commerce told GAO that the TPCC had taken steps including a monthly call with SIDO and state trade offices to share information on topics such as client intake, performance measures, and new federal export promotion activities. Commerce also reported to Congress that it conducted a survey of its U.S. Export Assistance Centers (USEACs) about the level of federal-state collaboration and has shared the results with SIDO. Further, Commerce and the TPCC have included a section on coordination in a CS (City or State) Plan FY 2015-2016 template, an internal planning document for Commerce's USEACs that provide export assistance to businesses across the country. However, while these are positive steps, Commerce has not engaged in joint planning with SIDO or state trade offices, including jointly defining roles and responsibilities in different locations and joint planning for monitoring of results and leveraging of resources. In December 2015, a SIDO official told GAO that SIDO was working with Commerce to improve coordination, but that many of the issues identified in GAO's May 2014 report remained. In December 2013, the Brookings Institution notified GAO that the memorandum of understanding with Commerce for the Global Cities program would not be renewed, and in March 2016, Commerce stated that the program's focus had shifted away from increasing U.S. cities' exports, lessening the need for a collaborative relationship with that program. Without joint federal-state planning, programs at different levels of government will likely continue to be duplicative, and effective resource planning will likely be hampered. In February 2016, the President signed The Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015, which contained several provisions intended to enhance federal-state collaboration in export promotion. First, the act directs the President to establish a state and federal export promotion coordination working group as a subcommittee of to the TPCC and appoint at least one representative from a state trade office to the TPCC. Second, beginning in February 2017, the Act requires Commerce to annually submit to the TPCC a federal-state export strategy that, among other things, addresses efforts to reduce duplication. In March 2016, Commerce stated that it is working with SIDO to begin the process of writing this strategy. Third, the Act requires Commerce and state trade agencies to develop a coordinated set of performance metrics, and report to Congress on these metrics within a year of the law's enactment. Fourth, the Act mandates an annual survey of state trade agencies to assess the overall effectiveness of federal-state coordination in export promotion. GAO will continue to monitor the implementation of the Act's requirements. This recommendation is also included in GAO's Action Tracker, an online tool for monitoring the progress executive branch agencies and Congress have made in addressing the actions identified in GAO's annual reports on duplication, overlap, and fragmentation in the federal government.
Recommendation: To improve federal-state collaboration in providing export promotion services in accordance with the National Export Initiative, and the Export Enhancement Act of 1992, the Secretary of Commerce, as Chair of the TPCC, should take steps consistent with key practices for collaboration to enhance TPCC agencies' partnering on export promotion with nonfederal entities, such as State International Development Organizations and Global Cities. This could include reassessing and strengthening the TPCC's intergovernmental partnerships by clarifying expected outcomes, defining roles and responsibilities, monitoring results, and planning resource needs.
Agency Affected: Department of Commerce