Peer Review:

Compliance With the Privacy Act and Federal Advisory Committee Act

GGD-91-48: Published: Apr 17, 1991. Publicly Released: Apr 17, 1991.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed six federal agencies' compliance with the Privacy Act of 1974 and the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) in their peer reviews of grant applications, focusing on: (1) how agencies kept their peer review records and whether applicants had access to them; (2) whether agencies misclassified peer review records as being subject to, or exempt from, the Privacy Act; and (3) whether the agencies chartered peer review panels and operated as advisory committees in compliance with FACA.

GAO found that: (1) four agencies properly classified their peer review records as Privacy Act records, since the records included personal information and were retrieved through a personal identifier; (2) the other two agencies did not classify their records as Privacy Act records, since they did not access their records by a personal identifier; (3) one of those two agencies improperly retrieved records on three occasions using the applicant's name, failing to comply with the Privacy Act; (4) one agency installed a new computer system in October 1990 that was capable of retrieving records through applicant name; (5) all six agencies maintained similar files documenting the peer review process, and did not include irrelevant personal applicant information in their files; (6) only a few applicants asked to review their records under the Privacy Act; (7) all six agencies routinely provided feedback to applicants on the results of peer review; (8) 215 files indicated no instances where agencies denied evaluation information feedback on the peer review process or had incomplete information; (9) four agencies chartered or were chartering their peer review panels as FACA advisory committees, while the other two believed that their panels did not meet FACA advisory committee criteria; and (10) 1 agency chartered 140 panels under FACA, but had about 30 unchartered panels during fiscal year 1990.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: All appropriate actions have been taken.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy and the Secretary of Commerce should establish their peer review files and automated grant application tracking systems as Privacy Act systems of record.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The departments are establishing their files/systems as Privacy Act systems of records.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy and the Secretary of Commerce should establish their peer review files and automated grant application tracking systems as Privacy Act systems of record.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Commerce's panels are in compliance with applicable law.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Commerce and the Secretary of Health and Human Services should charter their respective departments' peer review panels.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The National Institutes of Health is now chartering specific emphasis panels, which will bring all panels into compliance with FACA.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Commerce and the Secretary of Health and Human Services should charter their respective departments' peer review panels.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The DOE Office of the General Counsel has drafted legislation and submitted it to the Office of Management and Budget for consideration.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should seek an amendment to its authorizing legislation that would allow the Department of Energy (DOE) to charter its peer review panels but still protect the privacy of the grant applicants and peer reviewers. Following that change, the Secretary should charter DOE peer review panels.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

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