U.S. Commission on Civil Rights:

The Commission Should Strengthen Its Quality Assurance Policies and Make Better Use of Its State Advisory Committees

GAO-06-343: Published: May 1, 2006. Publicly Released: May 31, 2006.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Robert E. Robertson
(202) 512-9889
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (the Commission) was established by the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to serve as an independent, bipartisan, fact-finding agency whose mission is to investigate and report on the status of civil rights in the United States. Since its inception, the Commission has conducted hearings and issued reports highlighting critical, controversial civil rights issues, including racial segregation, impediments to voting rights, and affirmative action. To carry out its fact-finding and reporting mission, the Commission is required to submit at least one report annually to the President and Congress on federal civil rights enforcement efforts, among other requirements. Because the Commission has no enforcement power, the key means for achieving its mission lies in its credibility as an independent and impartial fact-finding and reporting organization. To complement this national fact-finding and reporting effort, separate state advisory committees were also authorized in 1957 to advise the Commission and serve as its "eyes and ears" on state and local civil rights issues. State advisory committees are composed of volunteers appointed by the Commission in every state who conduct public hearings on state and local civil rights issues and issue reports to the Commission on their findings. The Commission's national office reports are researched and written by national office staff and approved by the Commissioners, and the state advisory committee reports are researched and drafted by the Commission's regional office staff under the direction of the state advisory committees. We were asked to assess the Commission's quality assurance policies for its national and state advisory committee reports and other products and the role of the state advisory committees in fulfilling the Commission's fact-finding and reporting mission. More specifically, our objectives were to assess (1) the adequacy of the Commission's policies for ensuring the quality of its products and (2) the role of the state advisory committees in contributing to the Commission's work.

The Commission has some policies that provide adequate quality assurance for its products; however, it lacks policies for ensuring the objectivity of its national office reports, briefings, and hearings and providing accountability for decisions made on its national office products. Among its key policies, the Commission requires its national office products to be reviewed for legal sufficiency and provides affected agencies an opportunity to comment on the accuracy of information in its draft reports. In addition, under new Commission policies, Commissioners have an increased role in the development of its products, as we previously recommended. However, the Commission lacks several key policies that could help ensure objectivity in its national office products. The state advisory committees have played a key role in the Commission's work by identifying and reporting on local civil rights issues, but most committees do not have current charters giving them authorization to operate, and the Commission has not fully integrated the committees into the accomplishment of its mission. Traditionally, the committees have gathered data on state and local civil rights issues by holding hearings, forums, and briefings and communicated their findings to the Commission and the public through reports. Since 1980, the state advisory committees have accounted for 200 of the 254 reports published by the Commission. Currently, however, 38 of the 51 state advisory committees cannot conduct any work because they do not have approved charters. In late 2005, the Commission began revising the criteria for state advisory committee membership in order to, among other things, move away from racially and ethnically based representation toward great diversity in expertise and ideas. It also decided that the committees' applications for new charters would not be accepted until they had been redrafted to include only members who meet the new criteria. Several other actions by the Commission have limited the activities of the state advisory committees. First, since the 1990s, because of budgetary constraints, the Commission has significantly reduced the number of regional office staff, who provide extensive support to the state committees in conducting their activities and producing reports. In addition, the Commission has reduced funding for the state advisory committees, including money needed to hold public meetings. Furthermore, draft reports prepared by the state advisory committees are often not reviewed or published by the Commission in a timely manner. For example, most of the state advisory committees we visited told us the national office had not reviewed and accepted their reports in a timely manner, and less than a quarter of the state advisory committee chairs who responded to our survey reported that they were satisfied with the national office's timeliness in processing their reports. The Commission has also not incorporated the work of the state advisory committees into its strategic planning and decision-making processes, including articulating how the national office will use the state advisory committees' findings on state and local civil rights issues to inform the Commission's national goals and strategies. For example, the Commission did not obtain input from the state advisory committees in developing its new draft strategic plan, although the committees play an important role in accomplishing the agency's goals. Finally, although many of these are long-standing issues, the Commission has not provided for independent oversight of its policies and practices for the state advisory committees.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • 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 better ensure the quality of the Commission's national office products, the Commission should require that its written products consider varied and opposing perspectives, and that the process for achieving this be well documented.

    Agency Affected: Commission on Civil Rights

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Commission has addressed this recommendation in several ways: First, the Commission revised its administrative policies for its national office so as to strengthen its objectivity standards and requirements. The Commission defines objectivity as "the presentation of a balanced and unbiased examination of the issues, as reflected by the inclusion of varied and opposing views, opinions, and perspectives." The Commission notes that these considerations are reflected at key phases in the development of national office products. Secondly, the Commission developed a checklist for the national office report checklist to document that draft reports comply with policies, including objectivity requirements. This checklist is to be completed by specific offices, including the office of the staff director. Finally, the Commission developed Information Quality Guidelines--mandated under law--and made the guidelines available for public comment in the Federal Register; these guidelines require the agency's offices to incorporate OMB and Commission guidelines on quality and objectivity into its review procedures before its products are disseminated and provide for a means by which individuals can challenge the quality and objectivity of Commission information. The Commission plans to publish a final regulation by early 2007.

    Recommendation: In order to better ensure the quality of the Commission's national office products, the Commission should develop a process for using external reviewers that includes criteria for determining when to use external reviewers, identifying a range of appropriate reviewers, and ensuring that the selection process is impartial and transparent to the Commissioners and the public.

    Agency Affected: Commission on Civil Rights

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2007, the Commission adopted new policies for national office projects that establish a process for using external reviewers that indicates possible appropriate reviewers. The new policy requires at least one external reviewer to be selected by the Staff Director, with input from the Commissioners, the staff of the office that developed the report draft, and regional offices, as appropriate. The policy states that external reviewers may include state advisory committee members or compensated external reviewers. External reviewers are required to review the draft report and indicate that new quality assurance processes have been followed by certifying that all sections on checklists for three Commission products have been completed. For example, the reviewer would certify that the Office of the Staff Director had reported that there was a numerical balance among briefing presenters between opposing views, opinions, and perspectives. According to a Commission official, the new policy requires the use of external reviewers for these products, as indicated by the certification process on the three product checklists.

    Recommendation: In order to better ensure the quality of the Commission's national office products, the Commission should include criteria for Commissioner and Staff Director reviews of national office reports--from project proposal through final draft--in its policies and require substantive decisions and changes to be documented.

    Agency Affected: Commission on Civil Rights

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Commission addressed this recommendation. First, it developed new procedures for Commissioners' review of the first draft of reports that require that Commissioners submit comments in writing to the Office of the Staff Director. The project team is required to incorporate comments that meet certain criteria and to maintain a written record of the changes made in response to these comments. Second, the Commission revised its policies to incorporate several factors for Commissioners' review of final draft reports; these include reviewing reports for the objectivity of the research and analysis, quality and breadth of the research, strength of the reasoning and analysis, and strength of the evidence supporting findings, conclusions, and recommendations.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure that relevant information and perspectives are covered in a comprehensive manner during briefings and hearings, the Commission should require that the selection of speakers for briefings and witnesses for hearings include balanced, varied, and opposing perspectives, and that this process be well documented.

    Agency Affected: Commission on Civil Rights

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Commission changed its policies to require that proposed briefing panelists and hearing witnesses be approved by the staff director to ensure that the proposed composition of the panels complies with the Commission's objectivity requirements. According to the Commission, this review is documented on a new national office hearing and briefing checklist that is intended to ensure that briefing presenters and hearing witnesses reflect varied and opposing views, opinions, and perspectives.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure that the Commission can provide advice to Congress and make the most effective use of the state advisory committees, it should develop and implement a formal process for approving state advisory committee charters with specific timetables to ensure their approval in a timely manner and for appointing and seating advisory committee members promptly after charter approval.

    Agency Affected: Commission on Civil Rights

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2006, in its revised administrative policy for regional programs, the Commission established a formal process for approving state advisory committee charters and appointments with specific timetables. The policy requires regional offices to provide the national office with a plan for timely re-chartering of the advisory committees 3 months before the charter's expiration. For currently operating committees whose charter expires after January 30, 2007, a re-chartering package must be submitted to the Staff Director no later than 60 days before the expiration date, and the charter and appointments must be approved no later than 60 days after expiration. Currently, about 33 state advisory committees do not have charters. For this backlog, the policy requires that they must all be re-chartered by FY 2011. To date, two of the six regional offices currently have a director and some regional offices have no civil rights analyst staff, according to a Commission official. However, when the remaining four regional offices are appropriately staffed, these new timeframes should enable the Commission to approve state advisory commission charter and appointments in a timely manner.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure that the Commission can provide advice to Congress and make the most effective use of the state advisory committees, it should renew its practice of separately identifying funds for the regional offices and state advisory committees to better evaluate the adequacy of funding for supporting the committees, given budgetary constraints.

    Agency Affected: Commission on Civil Rights

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2006, the Commission approved a new administrative policy that allots funds separately to each regional office for its operation and is currently implementing this new policy as a pilot. According to the policy, funds are set aside to cover regional office salaries, benefits, and expenses, including expenses for state advisory committees not otherwise funded from the agency's central account. Separate allotments are expected to help the Commission better evaluate the adequacy of the funding used to support its regional operations, including advisory committees, and increase regional office authority over funding decisions. A Staff Director Memorandum from April 2007 states that decentralization of the budget is a pilot program that, if successful, will be fully implemented in FY 2008. In July 2006, the Commission had reported that it had begun decentralizing its budget in early FY 2006.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure that the Commission can provide advice to Congress and make the most effective use of the state advisory committees, it should establish required time frames for Staff Director reviews in order to ensure that state advisory committee reports are published in a timely manner.

    Agency Affected: Commission on Civil Rights

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2006, the Commission adopted a new administrative policy that established a 65-day time limit for the national office's review of state advisory committee reports, including timeframes for the Staff Director's review. The national office review includes a legal review (to be completed in about 3 weeks); an optional editorial review (usually 10-14 days); and the Staff Director's review (usually about 2 weeks), as well as time for revision and coordination. In reviewing state advisory committee reports, the Staff Director determines whether the reports meet the Commission's procedural and legal requirements. An editorial review board review can be used as the basis for the Staff Director's findings on the clarity and literacy of a report and whether the conclusions in the report are supported by the evidence, testimony, and research. The inspector general also reported on the adoption of this new policy in his March 2007 final memorandum to the Staff Director on the status of the Commission's implementation of GAO recommendations.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure that the Commission can provide advice to Congress and make the most effective use of the state advisory committees, it should integrate the state advisory committees' mission and work in its strategic planning and decision-making processes, including articulating how the national office will use the state advisory committees' findings on state and local civil rights issues to inform the Commission's national goals and strategies.

    Agency Affected: Commission on Civil Rights

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Commission has taken two actions to address this recommendation. The Commission's revised policies for regional program development, approved December 2006, includes among the Staff Director's responsibilities, ensuring that regional office and state advisory input is sought during the national office program planning process. According to regional office policies, the Staff director is also responsible for identifying appropriate opportunities for joint or integrated national office and state advisory committees studies and research. In addition, on May 21, 2007, the Commission submitted a draft strategic plan for FY 2007-2012 for Congressional comment that integrates state advisory committees' work into its strategic planning and decisionmaking processes. For example, under the first strategic goal, the draft strategic plan states that the Commission will further integrate the state advisory committees into the work of the Commission by completing a multi-state report in FY 2009 in which the committees will identify civil rights issues in their states. The Commission is also planning to hold a national conference in 2009 of scholars, policy makers, and others to discuss topics drawn from responses of the state advisory committees, resulting in a report of findings. The Commission will also be utilizing the regional offices to collaborate between the national office and the state advisory committees on annual projects, according to the draft plan. (The draft plan also notes-- as an external factor that affects the Commissions strategic goals--a continual decline in Commission staffing levels, including in the regional offices, from a total of 78 in 1999 to 41 as of August, according to a Commission official. In addition, 33 of the 51 state advisory committees currently lack charters and appointed members, and the Commission plans to re-charter the remaining committees by 2011.)

    Recommendation: In order to ensure that the Commission's processes are well documented and its policies are followed, the Commission should establish an external accountability mechanism, such as seeking the services of an existing Inspector General from another agency.

    Agency Affected: Commission on Civil Rights

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2006, the Commission retained the services of an Inspector General from the Peace Corps to evaluate the Commission's policies for ensuring objectivity and accountability for its national office products and to evaluate the advisory committee re-chartering process and other issues related to the operations of the state advisory committees. The IG will be making further revisions to Commission policies, as necessary, to ensure full compliance with the GAO report recommendations concerning accountability, transparency, and objectivity, according to the Commission. The Commission also previously submitted a fiscal year 2005 Inspector General Act report to Congress and the Office of Management and Budget. This report summarizes several audits of Commission programs, activities and functions conducted by both Federal and non-Federal auditors during FY 2005; significant findings for those audits that have been completed; and the Commission's implementation of auditors' recommendations.

    Jul 25, 2013

    May 16, 2013

    Aug 2, 2012

    Sep 30, 2011

    Apr 28, 2011

    Jul 29, 2010

    May 24, 2010

    Dec 3, 2009

    Oct 27, 2009

    Oct 14, 2009

    Looking for more? Browse all our products here