How agencies can ease congressional meetings

Agency officials' consultations with members of Congress and their staff about programs are supposed to strengthen teamwork as a program moves ahead. The Government Accountability Office offered a guide in a new report that department officials can use to improve their meetings on Capitol Hill.

These meetings and briefings between the Hill and the Executive agency provide time to get to know a program and even understand its challenges. Congress also holds a lot of power in its hands, including funding, for a program’s future. The Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) Modernization Act affords lawmakers the opportunity to get involved in how an agency’s program should turn out.

Recently, GAO interviewed department officials and congressional staff about these meetings and wrote the guide to the GPRA consultation.

In the guide, GAO advised agencies to:

Create shared expectations. Agencies' discussions with congressional staff varied widely. Some agency officials said staff began broader discussions about the agency’s performance. Other officials said the consultations were focus on strategic plans, not specific programs. GAO said the difference in views underscores how important it is to set expectations early on.

Tailor consultations and provide necessary information to meet participants’ needs. Congressional staff said they preferred to get information ahead of time, so they could pay more attention to presentations as they were given. Otherwise, they were trying to read the documents and listen at the same time.

Consider limiting materials to the core items. One staff member told GAO the staff members' workload doesn’t allow them to read a lot of documents, even if they get them ahead of the meeting.

Make sure there’s a mutual understanding of priorities. GAO said a successful consultation gives stakeholders a basic understanding of the competing demands that they confront as well as the limited available resources. The meetings help both sides recognize how those demands and resources need continuous balance.

Be open to an iterative process, engaging Congress at the appropriate times.

Begin consultations at the staff level. Both congressional staff and agency officials agreed meetings should be begin without the member of Congress and the agency top-level official. Both agreed too that agencies should bring officials to the meetings that can answer specific questions about a program and those officials with authority to revise plans.

Hold bipartisan and bicameral meetings, when possible, to get as many relevant officials involved. GAO also recommended involving multiple committees involved, such as authorizing and oversight committees, appropriators and budgeters, in a meeting.

“Willingness on the part of Congress and the administration to work together is a likely precondition to successful consultations,” GAO wrote in its report.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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