Making the FCC more responsive

Ajit Pai

Ajit Pai believes technology can make FCC proceedings more transparent. (FCC photo)

Sometimes it can take a long time to get an answer from the Federal Communications Commission. At an oversight hearing last summer, for example, two members of Congress asked after petitions that had been pending for more than eight years.

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai thinks that technology could be part of the answer, making proceedings at the agency more transparent and easier to monitor. Though he just turned 40, Pai is about to become the senior Republican on the Democrat-led commission, thanks to the impending retirement of longtime commissioner Robert McDowell.

Pai's youthful style comes across in his speeches, where he name-checks Taylor Swift and Chuck E. Cheese. He's a tech enthusiast, although he's quick to point out that his real area of expertise is communications law. His speeches and congressional testimony reflect an impatience with the way the gears can grind at the FCC.

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"Sometimes it can seem to people who aren't in Washington that the FCC or any federal agency for that matter is pretty far removed from the industry they are purporting to regulate, and from the people who are supposed to benefit from the work of that industry," Pai told FCW in a recent interview. "To be able to make our processes and decisions more transparent to them is a good thing."

Pai's agency has a critical role in the telecommunications industry as regulator, rule-maker and arbiter of consumer complaints. Stakeholders are able to offer their advice to the FCC through an online ex parte filing process that is accessible to the public and to journalists, industry analysts, and other interested parties. While experienced hands can navigate FCC proceedings, the system (which sprawls across two separate websites) can be baffling to novices. More to the point, there's no easy way to find out the status of a request or petition or complaint.

Pai thinks that an online dashboard would go a long way to making the FCC answerable to industry stakeholders, Congress, and the American people. While the FCC chairman is responsible for managing the agency, Pai is using his bully pulpit to drum up support for his idea among industry stakeholders. In his dream website, users could visit the FCC and track agency progress on license renewals, consumer complaints, merger reviews and other petitions. "Just naturally, that would create a culture of dispatch here at the FCC."

He points to the Michigan Dashboard as a good example of how government can report on its activities. Under Gov. Rick Snyder, the state has added a dashboard to its official website that tracks how the government is performing in certain key metrics, including public safety and economic growth. The office of Management and Budget's own IT dashboard -- though currently in limbo due to the delayed release of President Obama's fiscal 2014 budget -- serves a similar purpose for governmentwide technology spending.

"We'll take wisdom from whatever quarter is ready to offer it," Pai said. "We're always out for innovative federal or state or local agencies or private sector companies that can give us a better idea of how to run things."

A dashboard could also help Congress in its oversight capacity. Pai notes that the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees the FCC, had to make formal requests to get information on wait times for pending petitions. "The fact that they had to make a request, and the fact that the agency had to spend time compiling it, calls to my mind a need for an online resource," Pai said. There's tension built into the oversight relationship, which can be exacerbated by party politics. Pai thinks that an online reporting system could "remove political considerations."

Pai, whose varied legal career includes a stint as a senior FCC staffer, feels that the rank and file within the agency would support a more transparent reporting system. "Culturally, I don't think it would take that much of a change," he said. "I think most FCC employees embrace the idea that the public deserves a responsive agency. And I think they share our goal of being more responsive in the digital age."

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is FCW's senior staff writer, and covers Congress, health IT and governmentwide IT policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @thisismaz.

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