GAO Report Notes Needed Improvements at FCC

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GAO Report Notes Needed Improvements at FCC

Jan 21, 2010 10:29 AM

Washington - Jan 20, 2010 - A report issued in December 2009 from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the Federal Communications Commission needs improve its communication, decision-making processes and workforce planning.

Citing rapid changes in the telecommunications industry that present new regulatory challenges for the FCC, the GAO was asked to determine the extent to which FCC's bureau structure presents challenges for the agency in adapting to an evolving marketplace; the extent to which FCC's decision-making processes present challenges for the FCC, and what opportunities, if any, exist for improvement; and the extent to which the FCC's personnel management and workforce planning efforts face challenges in ensuring that the FCC has the workforce needed to achieve its mission. The GAO reviewed FCC documents and data and conducted literature searches to identify proposed reforms, criteria and internal control standards and compared them with the FCC's practices. The GAO also interviewed current and former FCC chairmen and commissioners, industry stakeholders, academic experts, and consumer representatives.

The FCC has seven bureaus that are structured along functional lines or technological lines. The GAO notes that many issues span jurisdiction between bureaus, but the FCC lacks any written procedures for ensuring that interbureau collaboration and communication occurs. The GAO says the FCC's reliance on informal coordination has created confusion among the bureaus regarding who is responsible for handling certain issues. In addition, the lack of written procedures has allowed various chairmen to determine the extent to which interbureau collaboration and communication occurs. This has led to instances in which FCC's final analyses lacked input from all relevant staff. Although the FCC stated that it relies on its functional offices, such as its engineering and strategic planning offices, to address crosscutting issues, stakeholders have expressed concerns regarding the chairman's ability to influence these offices.

Weaknesses in the FCC's processes for collecting and using information also raise concerns regarding the transparency and informed nature of the FCC's decision-making process. The FCC has five commissioners, one of which is designated chairman. According to the GAO, the FCC lacks internal policies regarding commissioner access to staff analyses during the decision-making process, and some chairmen have restricted this access. Such restrictions may undermine the group decision-making process and affect the quality of the FCC's decisions. In addition, the GAO identified weaknesses in the FCC's processes for collecting public input on proposed rules. Specifically, 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 have noted that providing proposed rule text helps focus public input. Additionally, the FCC has developed rules regarding contacts between external parties and FCC officials that require the external party to provide the FCC a summary of the new information presented for inclusion in the public record. However, several stakeholders told us that the FCC's ex parte process allows vague ex parte summaries and that in some cases, ex parte contacts can occur just before a commission vote, which can limit stakeholders' ability to determine what information was provided and to rebut or discuss that information.

The FCC faces challenges in ensuring it has the expertise needed to adapt to a changing marketplace. For example, a large percentage of the FCC's economists and engineers are eligible to retire in 2011, and the FCC faces difficulty recruiting top candidates. The FCC has initiated recruitment and development programs and has begun evaluating its workforce needs. The GAO previously noted that strategic workforce planning should include identifying needs, developing strategies to address these needs, and tracking progress. However, the FCC's Strategic Human Capital Plan does not establish targets for its expertise needs, making it difficult to assess the agency's progress in addressing its needs.

The GAO recommends the FCC develop written policies on interbureau coordination and commissioner access to staff analyses; revise its public comment process and its ex parte policies; and develop targets identifying expertise needs, strategies for meeting targets, and measures for tracking progress. FCC generally concurred with GAO's recommendations.

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