Federal Advisory Committee Act:

Issues Related to the Independence and Balance of Advisory Committees

GAO-08-611T: Published: Apr 2, 2008. Publicly Released: Apr 2, 2008.

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Because advisory committees provide input to federal decision makers on significant national issues, it is essential that their membership be, and be perceived as being, free from conflicts of interest and balanced as a whole. The Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) was enacted in 1972, in part, because of concerns that special interests had too much influence over federal agency decision makers. The General Services Administration (GSA) develops guidance on establishing and managing FACA committees. The Office of Government Ethics (OGE) develops regulations and guidance for statutory conflict-of- interest provisions that apply to some advisory committee members. As requested, this testimony discusses key findings and conclusions in our 2004 report, Federal Advisory Committees: Additional Guidance Could Help Agencies Better Ensure Independence and Balance; GAO's recommendations to GSA and OGE and their responses; and potential changes to FACA that could better ensure the independence and balance of advisory committees. For our 2004 work, we reviewed policies and procedures issued by GSA, OGE, and nine federal agencies that sponsor many committees. For this testimony, we obtained information from GSA and OGE on actions they have taken to implement our recommendations; we also reviewed data in GSA's FACA data base on advisory committee appointments.

In 2004, GAO concluded that additional governmentwide guidance could help agencies better ensure the independence of federal advisory committee members and the balance of federal advisory committees. For example, OGE guidance to federal agencies did not adequately ensure that agencies appoint individuals selected to provide advice on behalf of the government as "special government employees" subject to conflict-of-interest regulations. Further, GAO found that some agencies were inappropriately appointing most or all members as "representatives"--expected to reflect the views of the entity or group they are representing and not subject to conflict-of-interest reviews--even when the agencies call upon the members to provide advice on behalf of the government and thus should have been appointed as special government employees. In addition, GSA guidance to federal agencies and agency-specific policies and procedures needed to be improved to better ensure that agencies collect and evaluate information, such as previous or ongoing research, that could be helpful in determining the viewpoints of potential committee members regarding the subject matters being considered and in ensuring that committees are, and are perceived as being, balanced. GAO also identified several promising practices for forming and managing federal advisory committees that could better ensure that committees are independent and balanced as a whole, such as providing information on how the members of the committee are identified and screened and indicating whether the committee members are providing independent or stakeholder advice. To help improve the effectiveness of federal advisory committees so that members are, and are perceived as being, independent and committees as a whole are properly balanced, GAO made 12 recommendations to GSA and OGE to provide additional guidance to federal agencies under three broad categories: (1) the appropriate use of representative appointments; (2) information that could help ensure committees are, in fact, and in perception, balanced; and (3) practices that could better ensure independence and balanced committees and increase transparency in the federal advisory process. GSA and OGE implemented our recommendations to clarify the use of representative appointments. However, current data on appointments indicate that some agencies may continue to inappropriately use representatives rather than special government employees on some committees. Further, GSA said it agrees with GAO's other recommendations, including those relating to committee balance and measures that would promote greater transparency in the federal advisory committee process, but has not issued guidance in these areas as recommended, because of limitations in its authority to require agencies to comply with its guidance. In light of indications that some agencies may continue to use representative appointments inappropriately and GSA's support for including GAO's 2004 recommendations in FACA--including those aimed at enhancing balance and transparency--the Subcommittee may wish to incorporate the substance of GAO's recommendations into FACA as it considers amendments to the act.

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