Federal Advisory Committees:

Actions Needed to Enhance Decision-Making Transparency and Cost Data Accuracy

GAO-20-575: Published: Sep 10, 2020. Publicly Released: Sep 10, 2020.

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SagerM@gao.gov

 

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Advisory committees established via the Federal Advisory Committee Act shape public policy and government regulations, enhancing the quality and credibility of federal decision-making. The federal government spent about $373 million in FY 2019 to operate nearly 960 FACA committees.

Several of the 11 committees we reviewed did not meet transparency requirements, such as making key decisions during open meetings or posting documents online as required. Some committees also reported cost data that were inconsistent with source records and systems.

Our recommendations addressed improvements to transparency and cost reporting.

A Joint Meeting of the National Cancer Institute Board of Scientific Advisors and National Cancer Advisory Board

People seated around a large conference table

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Michelle Sager
(202) 512-6806
SagerM@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

GAO reviewed 11 selected committees covered under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) that serve the Departments of Commerce, Health and Human Services, and the Treasury. GAO found that these committees met many, but not all, selected transparency requirements established by FACA, General Services Administration (GSA) FACA regulations, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). FACA committees GAO reviewed published timely notices for 70 of 76 meetings and solicited public comments for all open meetings held by the committees. However, four of the 11 committees did not follow one or more selected requirements to renew charters, decide on proposed recommendations during open meetings, or compile minutes.

Five FACA committees GAO reviewed did not always follow requirements in OMB Circular A-130 for federal agencies to make public documents accessible online. GSA encourages agencies to post committee documents online consistent with OMB requirements. However, according to GSA's Office of the General Counsel, GSA's authority under FACA is not broad enough to require agencies to fulfill the OMB requirements. Eight of the nine selected FACA committees in our original sample that make recommendations to agencies attempt to track the agencies' responses to and implementation status of recommendations. However, many committees do not make this information fully available to the public online. Improved public reporting could enhance congressional and public visibility into the status of agencies' responses to committee recommendations.

Selected Requirements for Advisory Committees Covered under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA)

Selected Requirements for Advisory Committees Covered under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA)

The selected agencies and FACA committees reported that they implemented a range of practices to help ensure agency officials do not exert inappropriate influence on committees' decisions. These practices include limiting committee members' interactions with agency officials outside committee meetings.

GAO also found that about 29 percent of the 11 selected committees' cost data elements in GSA's FACA database for fiscal years 2017 and 2018 were inconsistent with corresponding cost data from selected agency and committee records and systems. In the absence of reliable cost data, Congress is unable to fully rely on these data to inform decisions about funding FACA committees.

Why GAO Did This Study

FACA requires federal agencies to ensure that federal advisory committees make decisions that are independent and transparent. In fiscal year 2019, nearly 960 committees under FACA played a key role in informing public policy and government regulations.

GAO was asked to review the transparency and independence of FACA committees and data collected in GSA's FACA database. This report examines (1) selected agencies' and committees' adherence to transparency requirements; (2) their practices to help ensure that agency officials do not exert inappropriate influence on committee decision-making; and (3) the extent to which GSA's FACA database contained accurate, complete, and useful cost information for these committees.

GAO selected a non-generalizable sample of 11 FACA committees serving three agencies, based in part on costs incurred and numbers of recommendations made. GAO analyzed documents and interviewed agency officials and committee members. GAO also reviewed FACA database cost data for the 11 committees.

What GAO Recommends

Congress should consider requiring online posting of FACA committees' documents. GAO is also making nine recommendations to agencies to improve FACA committee transparency and data accuracy. Agencies agreed with six recommendations, and GSA described steps to address recommendations to it.

For more information, contact Michelle Sager at (202) 512-6806 or SagerM@gao.gov.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we determine what steps the Congress has taken, we will provide updated information.

    Matter: Congress should consider amending FACA to require agencies and advisory committees to make available online documents FACA already requires to be made available for public inspection and copying. (Matter for Consideration 1)

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of the FDA should ensure that PAC renews its charter. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Food and Drug Administration

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should require ETAAC and IRSAC to make decisions on proposed recommendations to IRS during open meetings. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should require ETAAC and IRSAC to compile meeting minutes and make them publicly available. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of the Census Bureau should require CSAC to compile meeting minutes and make them publicly available. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: Bureau of the Census

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Treasury should require FACA committees under Treasury's purview to provide access to meeting agendas and supporting documents on the committees' websites. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of NIH should establish and implement a policy requiring all FACA committees under NIH's jurisdiction to post meeting minutes online. (Recommendation 6)

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: National Institutes of Health

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of GSA should encourage FACA committees to make information on agencies' responses to and implementation of specific recommendations publicly available online, unless exempted from public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. (Recommendation 7)

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration

  8. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of GSA should require agencies to develop and implement written policies or procedures to identify, calculate, and fully document FACA committee costs, and ensure agency staff enter accurate and complete cost data into the FACA database. (Recommendation 8)

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration

  9. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of GSA should direct the Committee Management Secretariat to require FACA committees to specify the exact date when they last updated cost data in the FACA database. This could be completed in a field in the database under the "Committee Cost" section or in another relevant data field. (Recommendation 9)

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration

 

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