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General government > 4. Consumer Product Safety Oversight

More formal and comprehensive coordination among federal agencies is needed to help increase efficiency and effectiveness related to consumer product safety oversight and address challenges related to fragmentation and overlap.

Why This Area Is Important

The oversight of consumer product safety involves a number of federal agencies. New laws and agencies have been established over time, resulting in a patchwork system with many agencies having regulatory and enforcement authorities for different consumer products or different parts of the same product. Further, as globalization and technological advances expand the range of products available in U.S. markets, the challenge of regulating the thousands of product types has become increasingly complex.

As GAO reported in November 2014, eight agencies have direct regulatory oversight responsibilities for consumer product safety: the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, and the U.S. Coast Guard (within the Department of Homeland Security). CPSC is charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risk of injury or death associated with the use of thousands of types of consumer products. For example, CPSC regulates children’s products (e.g., toys and cribs); certain off-road recreational vehicles (e.g., all-terrain vehicles), and other household products (e.g., power tools and home appliances). Other agencies have jurisdiction over certain categories of products, such as automobiles, boats, drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, and pesticides. These eight agencies conduct a range of regulatory activities to oversee these products, including risk assessment, rulemaking, and enforcement.

GAO also reported in November 2014 that at least 12 other agencies play a support role in consumer product safety in various areas, such as public health and law enforcement. One of these agencies is the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).[1] According to NIST, the agency is a nonregulatory federal research laboratory, and its mission is to promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life. In addition, under the America COMPETES Act of 2007, NIST currently oversees the markings of toy and imitation firearms to distinguish them from real firearms.

[1]The other agencies are the Federal Communications Commission; Federal Emergency Management Agency; National Institutes of Health; Health Resources and Services Administration; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Federal Aviation Administration; National Transportation Safety Board; Occupational Safety and Health Administration; U.S. Customs and Border Protection; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and Federal Trade Commission.

What GAO Found

GAO reported in November 2014 that oversight of consumer product safety is fragmented across agencies, and jurisdiction overlaps or is unclear for certain products. Agencies reported that the involvement of multiple agencies with various expertise can help ensure more comprehensive oversight by addressing a range of safety concerns. However, agencies also noted that fragmentation and overlap can result in some inefficiencies, including the challenges of sharing information across agencies, inefficient use of resources, and unclear roles resulting in potential regulatory gaps.

Specifically, GAO found that NIST’s oversight of toy and imitation firearm markings to distinguish them from real firearms may not be efficient, as it does not align with the agency’s primary mission and expertise in the area of scientific measurement and standards. NIST staff noted that because most toy and imitation firearms are imported, the implementing regulations are enforced almost entirely by the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which, unlike NIST, has a presence at ports of entry. As such, NIST staff stated that the regulation and oversight of toy and imitation firearm markings may be administered better by another federal agency, such as CPSC, which also oversees toys and other consumer products and has a presence at ports of entry. However, this would require a statutory change. Neither NIST nor CPSC has conducted formal cost estimates for carrying out this oversight responsibility, but NIST estimates that it spent $10,104 in fiscal year 2014 on this function. However, continued regulation of the marking of toy and imitation firearms by NIST rather than CPSC does not leverage each agency’s expertise and therefore may not be the most efficient use of scarce federal resources.

In another example, oversight of products that can be used on recreational boats is fragmented between the Coast Guard and CPSC, and the jurisdiction for some products can be unclear and can result in potential regulatory gaps. Coast Guard staff told GAO that because of limited staff resources, the Coast Guard, through regulation, has chosen to limit the scope of its product recall activities to four categories of after-market boating equipment (i.e., equipment not installed by the original equipment manufacturer). Unlike the Coast Guard, CPSC does not have legal jurisdiction over recreational boats and associated equipment, but CPSC officials stated that they have authority over some products that can be used either on or off of a boat—such as boating gloves, a camping stove, or a refrigerator. The Coast Guard and CPSC both acknowledged a potential regulatory gap for certain boating equipment based on the Coast Guard’s limited scope of oversight of after-market equipment and CPSC’s lack of authority to regulate equipment associated with recreational boats. Coast Guard staff said that coordination with CPSC works well but has been infrequent—one or two times a year at most—and at times the Coast Guard has gone for years without coordinating with CPSC.

GAO’s work on collaboration suggests that collaborating agencies should clarify roles and responsibilities and, if appropriate, document their agreement on how they will be collaborating.[1] Because no formal coordination mechanism exists between the Coast Guard and CPSC, there is a potential risk that hazards related to products for which jurisdiction is unclear may not be regulated. In addition, because of the potential gap in jurisdiction, it may at times be unclear which agency has regulatory responsibility for some products that may present safety risks, which underscores the need for strong communication between the two agencies.

GAO found that although the agencies it reviewed for its November 2014 report collaborate on a variety of issues, agencies also reported that they face challenges when they work collaboratively. These challenges include staying informed about the regulatory activities of other agencies, coordinating on jurisdictional issues, and considering options to share data rather than purchasing the same data under multiple contracts. In addition, while agencies reported collaborating using a variety of mechanisms to address specific topics—such as nanotechnology or environmental health and safety risks to children—no coordinating mechanism exists to address federal consumer product safety efforts comprehensively. The inefficiencies GAO found suggest the need for greater collaboration across all agencies with a role in product safety oversight. Such collaboration, in turn, could help reduce some negative effects of fragmentation and overlap. There may also be instances where more formal arrangements would be beneficial.

In past work, GAO has noted that interagency mechanisms or strategies to coordinate programs that address crosscutting issues may reduce potentially duplicative, overlapping, and fragmented efforts. In October 2005, GAO identified practices that can help enhance and sustain collaboration among federal agencies, and in September 2012, GAO identified key considerations for implementing collaborative mechanisms.[2] More specifically, GAO concluded that while collaborative mechanisms differ in complexity and scope, they all benefit from certain key features, such as having clear roles and responsibilities and involving all relevant participants. Additionally, GAO’s prior work found that agencies that articulate their agreements in formal documents can strengthen their commitment to working collaboratively and that written agreements are most effective when they are regularly updated and monitored.[3] GAO noted that not all collaborative arrangements need to be documented through written guidance and agreements, particularly those that are informal. However, GAO has found that at times it can be helpful to document key agreements related to the collaboration.

Although a number of agencies have an oversight role in consumer product safety, no single entity has the expertise or authority to address the full scope of product safety activities. Moreover, some oversight agencies are independent and not subject to the Office of Management and Budget’s interagency planning process and review of draft rules within the executive branch. Formal collaboration—both between two agencies to address a specific issue and across multiple agencies to provide comprehensive oversight—can be useful in strengthening agency commitments in working together. Without a collaborative mechanism to facilitate communication across the relevant agencies and to help enable them to collectively address crosscutting issues, the agencies may be missing opportunities to better leverage resources and address challenges, including those related to fragmentation and overlap.

[1]GAO, Managing for Results: Key Considerations for Implementing Interagency Collaborative Mechanisms, GAO‑12‑1022 (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 27, 2012).

[2]GAO, Results-Oriented Government: Practices That Can Help Enhance and Sustain Collaboration among Federal Agencies, GAO‑06‑15 (Washington, D.C.: Oct. 21, 2005) and GAO‑12‑1022.

Actions Needed

To help strengthen consumer product safety oversight coordination and increase efficiency and effectiveness, in November 2014 GAO suggested that Congress take the following two actions:

  • Consider transferring the oversight of the markings of toy and imitation firearms in section 5001 of title 15 of the U.S. Code from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (within the Department of Commerce) to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
  • Consider establishing a formal comprehensive oversight mechanism for consumer product safety agencies to address crosscutting issues as well as inefficiencies related to fragmentation and overlap such as communication and coordination challenges and jurisdictional questions between agencies. Different types of formal mechanisms could include, for example, creating a memorandum of understanding to formalize relationships and agreements or establishing a task force or interagency work group. As a starting point, Congress may wish to obtain agency input on options for establishing more formal coordination.

In November 2014, GAO also recommended that to clarify roles and facilitate greater communication and strengthen oversight of associated equipment related to recreational boats, the U.S. Coast Guard and Consumer Product Safety Commission should take the following action:

  • Establish a formal approach to coordination (such as a memorandum of understanding) to facilitate information sharing and better leveraging of resources.

Estimating potential cost savings is difficult because of the lack of consistent budget data we received from agencies on their consumer product safety oversight activities. For example, not all agencies were able to separate out their costs for conducting specific oversight activities.  However, implementing these matters and recommendation could still strengthen coordination among oversight agencies and, for example, ensure that they address cross-cutting issues in a comprehensive manner.

How GAO Conducted Its Work

The information contained in this analysis is based on findings from the product in the related GAO products section. To identify agencies that conduct consumer product safety oversight and to delineate their roles and responsibilities, GAO reviewed various sources, such as laws and regulations, Federal Register notices for proposed and final rulemaking from August 2008 through October 2013, and agency websites. GAO then disseminated a questionnaire to the agencies it identified to confirm their roles and responsibilities related to consumer product safety oversight, identify any other relevant agencies with which they coordinate, and identify examples of potential fragmentation, overlap, and duplication in oversight. GAO also interviewed federal agencies, consumer groups, and industry groups to gather information on the extent of fragmentation, overlap, and duplication; their benefits and challenges; and options to address them. GAO analyzed agency and other documentation as available.

Table 2 in appendix V lists the eight agencies with direct oversight responsibilities for consumer product safety, including descriptions of the agencies’ roles and examples of products they regulate. We do not include budgetary information because we were not able to obtain consistent budget data from each of the eight agencies. For example, not all agencies were able to break out the budgets for their oversight activities related to consumer product safety, with some agencies providing their entire agency budgets and others providing limited estimates. GAO found that some of the agencies listed might have similar or overlapping objectives, provide similar services, or be fragmented across government missions. Overlap and fragmentation might not necessarily lead to actual duplication, and some degree of overlap and duplication may be justified.

Agency Comments & GAO Contact

GAO provided a draft of its November 2014 report on which this analysis is based to 20 agencies (8 direct oversight agencies and 12 agencies with indirect oversight) for their review and comment. CPSC, the Department of Homeland Security, HUD, and NIST agreed with GAO’s matters to Congress and recommendation, while the remaining agencies neither agreed nor disagreed. CPSC suggested that GAO clarify that its matter to Congress refers to requirements under section 5001 of title 15 of the U.S. Code and stated that it would be willing to accept responsibility for oversight of the markings of toy and imitation firearms provided that the transfer of authority from NIST includes a corresponding increase in appropriations. CPSC also stated that it would be comfortable with the establishment of a formal collaboration mechanism to address oversight in areas of shared or fragmented jurisdiction provided that such an approach does not compromise the agency’s independence. Both CPSC and the Department of Homeland Security (U.S. Coast Guard) indicated that they support and plan to pursue the recommendation to establish a formal approach to coordination. In commenting on a draft of this report section, the Coast Guard noted that in its discussions with CPSC, it became apparent that, due to the infrequency of issues that arise because of a gap in oversight on associated equipment, a formal Memorandum of Understanding was not necessary. The Coast Guard added that the two agencies agreed that a formal policy document between the responsible offices within each agency would be a more appropriate format. The Coast Guard stated that the formal policy document is being drafted and will be completed by April 30, 2015.

Additionally, in commenting on a draft of this report section, HUD stated that it would welcome the opportunity to participate in the implementation of a formal comprehensive oversight mechanism for consumer product safety. GAO also received technical comments from a number of agencies, which were incorporated as appropriate.

For additional information about this area, contact Alicia Puente Cackley at (202) 512-8678 or

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