By Michael Smallberg
We wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the efforts of two agencies that are striving to provide more information to the public on advisory panels governed by the Federal Advisory Committee Act (let’s call it a FACA Friday).
The first is the General Services Administration (GSA), which recently announced the launch of a new website called eFACA that will hopefully make it easier to monitor the activities of the thousands of federal advisory committees that provide recommendations to agencies on critical policy issues.
Under existing laws and regulations, agencies are already required to disclose certain information about advisory committees such as their membership and costs. Up until now, however, that information was mostly trapped in an online database that was exceedingly difficult to navigate.
GSA’s new webpage, eFACA, allows you to view aggregated trends—such as total annual spending on federal advisory committees ($387 million in 2010) and spending within individual agencies over the last ten years ($1.6 billion at the Department of Health Human Services)—and also makes it easier to track down information on individual committees and their members. Steven Croley, Special Assistant to the President for Justice and Regulatory Policy, described these new features in a post on the White House blog:
The public will now be able to retrieve information about advisory committee membership, costs, meetings, and contact information. The user friendly site provides not only information about individual committee members but also information about the composition of specific committees. GSA’s new user friendly site also links directly to the websites of many of the individual federal advisory committees.
We understand that GSA developed and launched the website in a short timeframe with a shoestring budget, and it’s already a huge improvement over the previous database. Moving forward, we hope GSA can work with Congress, agencies, advisory committees, the Office of Government Ethics, and the NGO community to explore how the government can provide even more information on federal advisory committees and their members. For instance, many agencies have already created exemplary webpages for their advisory committees with links to conflict-of-interest waivers and recusal statements, agency responses to committee reports, and archived video webcasts of committee meetings. This is the kind of thing POGO and other good government advocates would like to see more of as agencies continue to implement their open government initiatives.
Meanwhile, there have also been some promising FACA-related developments at the newly reborn Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS), an “independent federal agency dedicated to improving the administrative process through consensus-driven applied research.”
ACUS’s Committee on Collaborative Governance is currently conducting a study, “FACA in the 21st Century,” to explore how agencies and committees can utilize social media and collaborative governance tools such as online meetings to enhance public participation. Sounds like a promising idea, but after reviewing a draft consultant report and the Committee’s preliminary recommendations, POGO and other groups had some questions and concerns about the purpose and scope of the project.
In a response letter and comments sent by POGO, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and OMB Watch, we expressed our support for giving agencies and advisory panels more flexibility to use social media and collaborative governance tools to engage the public. However, we cautioned the Committee not to issue any recommendations that would allow committees to use new media tools to circumvent FACA’s disclosure requirements, which were put in place to provide transparency and to ensure that the government receives the best possible advice from non-conflicted experts.
For instance, we opposed a draft recommendation that urged Congress not to close a loophole in the existing law that exempts subcommittees from the disclosure requirements. A provision to close this loophole was one of several key reforms included in FACA legislation that passed the House last year and was recently introduced by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) as part of the “Transparency and Openness in Government Act” (H.R. 1144).
We’re pleased to report that the ACUS Committee has agreed to broaden its review and engage the public interest community on a more comprehensive analysis of FACA. Celia Wexler from the Union of Concerned scientists attended the Committee's latest meeting—here's what she had to say about the Committee's decision:
We are very pleased that ACUS has recognized the importance of the public interest community in the development of these recommendations. We also strongly support the decision to look at FACA in a more comprehensive way, given how crucial this law is to the openness and accountability of federal agencies, and the quality of the regulations they implement.
We appreciate the Committee’s willingness to hear our concerns, and we look forward to their follow-up recommendations for making federal advisory committees more accessible to the public.
Michael Smallberg is a POGO Investigator.