Interdepartment Radio Advisory Committee:

IRAC Representatives Effectively Coordinate Federal Spectrum but Lack Seniority to Advise on Contentious Policy Issues

GAO-04-1028: Published: Sep 30, 2004. Publicly Released: Sep 30, 2004.

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The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) within the Department of Commerce manages the federal government's use of the radio frequency spectrum with coordination and policy input from the Interdepartment Radio Advisory Committee (IRAC), comprised of 20 federal agencies that use spectrum. In recent years, the use of spectrum in wireless applications has expanded dramatically, leading occasionally to contentious disputes between government and commercial users over access to spectrum. Considering IRAC's key role in spectrum management, Congress asked us to (1) describe the evolution of IRAC and (2) obtain IRAC agency representatives' assessment of IRAC's spectrum coordination and policy advice, role as an advisor, and whether IRAC needs to be reformed.

The mission and placement of IRAC have evolved over time. IRAC began in 1922 by assisting in the assignment of frequencies to federal users and coordinating federal government spectrum use. In 1952, IRAC's mission was expanded to include responsibilities for formulating and recommending policies, plans, and actions for federal government spectrum use. Initially advising the Department of Commerce, IRAC has reported to or through various different entities, including at different times the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Office of the President. Since 1978, IRAC has directly advised the Department of Commerce's NTIA. Currently, IRAC is comprised of a full committee, six standing subcommittees, and various ad hoc committees and working groups. In interviews with GAO, IRAC agency representatives made two key points in assessing IRAC. First, IRAC is effective in accomplishing spectrum coordination tasks, but its effectiveness is at times limited by representatives' uneven level of technical knowledge. This problem could worsen, as one-half of the 20 current IRAC representatives are currently eligible to retire. Second, IRAC's ability to advise on national spectrum policy issues is limited because of representatives' lack of seniority within their agencies. The chair of IRAC (an NTIA senior executive) is in agreement with representatives on these points. He said that he has gone outside IRAC directly to senior agency executives when he needed advice on contentious spectrum disputes such as those related to the introduction of new commercial communications services that would use federally controlled spectrum. A federal task force recently released a report that identified similar issues regarding IRAC's effectiveness and areas in need of reform.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: In order to improve the effectiveness of IRAC's contribution in spectrum management, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information to seek IRAC's assistance in establishing a set of best practices in human capital for agencies that participate in IRAC that include information on the appropriate knowledge and training levels for IRAC representatives, goals for continuing education in emerging technologies, and agency succession planning.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: A request for information has been made concerning the status of this recommendation. Commerce is working to determine what actions have been taken and will provide the status and supporting documentation as soon as possible. "Human capital continues to be an issue within the IRAC membership. Some of the situations stem from reorganization within individual agencies. More often human capital issues relate to difficulty attracting good candidates for government positions. Human capital was assigned to one of the working level groups under the Presidential Reform Initiative and the group continues to develop a management plan for spectrum management training. We expect this plan to be completed in the next year. Many of the agencies have been successful in attracting former military communications and spectrum management personnel into frequency assignment positions. These are usually lower level, non-degree positions. The greater challenge continues to be to attract engineers and policy experts (with technical knowledge) to deal with the policy challenges that face government and industry as spectrum demand grows." NTIA 8/29/08 email.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the effectiveness of IRAC's contribution in spectrum management, the Secretary of Commerce should establish a special committee within IRAC comprised of senior-level agency officials to be convened by the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information as needed to provide policy advice on contentious spectrum policy issues, such as those requiring either commercial or government entities to share or relinquish spectrum.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO found that, when it comes to dealing with contentious policy issues requiring negotiation between government and commercial users, Interagency Radio Advisory Committee (IRAC) representatives questioned the effectiveness of IRAC's current structure and membership. There is a strong consensus that more senior-level agency officials need to become involved in providing the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) with advice on contentious spectrum policy issues. While NTIA officials seek out such senior-level advice as needed, this is an ad hoc process that occurs outside the current framework of IRAC. GAO recommended that the Secretary of Commerce establish a special committee within IRAC comprised of senior-level agency officials to provide policy advice on contentious spectrum policy issues. In response, in May 2010, NTIA created the Policy and Plans Steering Group to pull together executive level input on critical issues. According to the NTIA, this has enabled NTIA to engage the agencies at the political and career SES levels and decreased the demand to change the agencies' structure and placement of their spectrum management professionals. GAO believes that NTIA's creation of the policy and plans steering group satisfies the spirit of our recommendation. It will help the federal government deal with contentious policy issues related to its spectrum use.

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