GAO: GSA's oversight of advisory panels OK

A senior General Accounting Office official told Congress last week that the process for supervising federal advisory committees, which issue policy guidance on everything from health care to information technology, is mostly effective, but he added that some obstacles block capable management of the committees.

Speaking before the House Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology, Nye Stevens, GAO director for federal management and work force issues, said the General Services Administration, which has oversight responsibility for federal advisory committees, has failed in some of its supervisory roles. GSA has missed eight deadlines for issuing annual reports to the president on the committees and has established some committees with incomplete charters, Stevens said.

Congress, the president and agencies have created more than 900 advisory committees to offer guidance to agency officials on a range of topics, many of them dealing with the collection of data or statistics as well as the use of technology. Committees have included the Defense Department's Advisory Committee on High-Performance Computing and Communications Information Technology and the Next Generation Internet; the Commerce Department's Information Systems Technical Advisory Committee; and the Justice Department's Criminal Justice Information Services Advisory Policy Board.

Stevens told the House subcommittee that agencies appear to be following the regulations that govern the establishment and management of the advisory committees and that the agencies report that the committees generally provide "balanced" advice and recommendations. Although his criticism of GSA's committee oversight was mild, Stevens said GSA officials are working to meet deadlines and ensure that committees are properly chartered.

To highlight how GSA is trying to hone its oversight and management of the advisory committees, agency officials showed subcommittee members a World Wide Web site that serves as a database of committee information for the public, executive branch officials, committee members and other interested parties. The site includes information on the membership of the committees, the committees' annual reports and milestones. The site "should result in improvement in timeliness of all future reports," said Ken Fussell, a GSA committee management specialist.

But Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) wondered if enough was being done to include the public in committee activities, and he was concerned that some committees holding closed meetings were shutting out critical public involvement. "If there's a process that takes place behind closed doors, how are we supposed to make any assessment of it?" Kucinich asked panelists at the hearing. "How are we to know if special interests are having undue influence on public policy?"According to GSA testimony, agencies are shutting the public out of many meetings. For example, about 10 percent of the National Science Foundation's advisory committee meetings were partly open to the public in fiscal 1997, while the Defense Department opened up 65 percent of its meetings.

Stevens said he believed that many committees felt they were warranted in closing meetings for such reasons as guarding national security secrets and protecting private information on an individual's performance.

Stevens said GAO had not thoroughly researched the practice of closed meetings and that the agency could investigate the issue in future reports. "We can certainly look into that," he told Kucinich.

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