GAO raps FCC for communication breakdowns

FCC needs to fix 'ex parte' rules, GAO says

The Federal Communications Commission needs to improve the way it manages the policy input it receives from the public and from its own staff experts, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The FCC’s processes for interacting with the public show weaknesses that may affect transparency and the quality of the information informing the commission’s policy-making decisions, GAO concluded.

For example, the FCC rarely includes the text of a proposed rule when issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to collect public comment on a rule change, although some studies show that providing text helps to focus the comments, the GAO said.

In addition, the FCC’s ethics rules on ex parte, or nonofficial, discussions between FCC officials and external parties may be inadequate, the GAO report said. Those refer to discussions that occur outside of an official public forum. Under ethics rules, ex parte contacts generally are to be limited for transparency’s sake. In the FCC’s case, the external party must provide a written summary of the discussion for the public.

However, the written summaries often are vague and unspecific, GAO said. Furthermore, the ex parte discussions sometimes occur just before an FCC commission meeting, which “can limit stakeholders’ ability to determine what information was provided and to rebut or discuss that information,” the report said.

The FCC also is having difficulties in coordinating the way it collects information from its staff experts within its seven bureaus. Some of the bureaus are structured along technology lines, such as wireless telecommunications, while others are structured along functional lines, such as enforcement.

“Developments in the telecommunications industry continue to create issues that span the jurisdiction of several bureaus,” the GAO wrote. “However, FCC lacks written procedures for ensuring that inter-bureau collaboration and communication occurs. FCC’s reliance on informal coordination has created confusion among the bureaus regarding who is responsible for handling certain issues.”

In addition to causing confusion, the current system also has resulted in FCC analyses lacking input from all relevant staff.

The GAO recommended that the FCC draw up written procedures for internal coordination, revise its public comment process and ex parte policies, and develop targets for workforce expertise needs. The FCC agreed with the recommendations.

The FCC, which oversees regulation of telecommunications, including wireless and broadband, is currently preparing a National Broadband Strategy. As part of that, the commission is considering first responders' requests for more radio spectrum for the purpose of public safety.

 

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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