Trade Agencies Should Enhance Collaboration with State and Local Partners
GAO-14-393: Published: May 21, 2014. Publicly Released: Jun 4, 2014.
What GAO Found
Federal and state governments share a common interest in promoting exports as a tool for economic growth and creating jobs. Both provide similar and overlapping export promotion services to similar clients, but their staffing, budgetary resources, and ways of measuring performance vary. Located across the country, Department of Commerce (Commerce), Small Business Administration (SBA), and state trade offices provide outreach, counseling and training, and trade leads, mostly to small businesses. In some states, state trade offices have more domestic staff than Commerce offices do. However, Commerce provides more overall coverage abroad, with offices in 72 countries, 15 of which have no state trade office representation. In the five states GAO visited, federal and state collaboration on export promotion varied from working closely in the same location to not collaborating at all, depending on unique factors in each state.
The federal interagency Trade Promotion Coordinating Committee (TPCC) has three initiatives designed to advance federal-state collaboration in promoting U.S. exports by strengthening and expanding networks of state and local governments and other partners. Results of these efforts have been limited, however, in part because their implementation has not consistently followed key collaboration practices. In prior work, GAO found that collaboration is generally enhanced by following key practices, such as articulating common outcomes; agreeing on roles and responsibilities; monitoring, evaluating, and reporting on results; and coordinating resource planning. In the states it visited, GAO found weaknesses in the implementation of Export Outreach Teams, a TPCC initiative. For example, in some cases, activities were missing key participants and were inconsistent with the activities' objectives, in part because SBA is not fully monitoring implementation of the teams across its 68 district offices. Similarly, GAO found that TPCC's involvement in a Brookings Institution initiative to engage metropolitan areas in export promotion has unknown implications for federal export promotion efforts and resources because Commerce lacks a means to monitor the initiative's results. Finally, an agreement between Commerce (the TPCC Chair) and a national group representing state trade offices expired without achieving its collaboration objective or enhancing client information sharing so states can share credit with Commerce for helping companies make export sales. According to Commerce, by law, it cannot release its clients' confidential commercial information, and its policy is to make determinations on releasing information case by case, but it does not provide formal guidance to staff on what information sharing is allowable.
TPCC Initiatives to Promote Federal-State Collaboration in Export Promotion
Why GAO Did This Study
The 2010 National Export Initiative calls for the federal government to coordinate more with state and local governments and other public and private partners on export promotion. Recently, the TPCC identified three key initiatives to enhance collaboration among federal, state, and other partners. Congress requested that GAO review federal and state collaboration in export promotion.
This report examines (1) the main characteristics of federal and state export promotion efforts, including their collaboration, and (2) the extent to which the TPCC has advanced collaboration between state and federal efforts. GAO analyzed federal and state documents and data from 2012 and 2013; interviewed officials from federal, state, and other export promotion organizations; and visited federal and state trade offices and other relevant organizations in five states selected as a nongeneralizable sample based on their participation in the TPCC initiatives and other factors.
What GAO Recommends
GAO recommends that the TPCC take steps consistent with key practices for collaboration to (1) improve implementation of the Export Outreach Teams to better achieve their intended objectives; (2) enhance TPCC agencies' collaboration on export promotion with nonfederal entities; and (3) enhance federal information sharing with state trade offices, where possible, on Commerce's export promotion activities, for example, by providing formal guidance to staff on allowable information sharing. Commerce and SBA agreed with GAO's recommendations.
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Recommendations for Executive Action
Comments: Commerce notified GAO that it did not fully concur with the recommendation but preferred to maintain a case-by-case approach rather than issuing more formal guidance on federal information sharing with state trade offices. Commerce believed a case-by-case approach lent it more flexibility. However, when enhancing its computer information systems, Commerce will explore ways for clients to give permission to release information useful to state trade offices. GAO will continue to look for any improvements in Federal - State information sharing about export promotion activities.
Recommendation: To improve federal-state collaboration in providing export promotion services in accordance with the National Export Initiative, and the Export Enhancement Act of 1992, the Secretary of Commerce, as Chair of the TPCC, should take steps consistent with key practices to enhance, where possible, federal information sharing with state trade offices on Commerce's export promotion activities. This could include more formal guidance to Commerce staff regarding the circumstances, in light of legal restrictions, in which information can be shared with state trade offices and other nonfederal entities, and exploring ways for clients to give permission to release information useful to such nonfederal entities.
Agency Affected: Department of Commerce
Comments: Commerce notified GAO that, after consultation with the Small Business Administration (SBA), which co-leads the Export Outreach Teams (EOT), it will narrow the scope of the EOTs to focus on outreach events with businesses rather than on internal planning with partners. Commerce and SBA planned to provide instructions as such to their respective field offices at the start of fiscal year 2015. Subsequently, the findings in GAO-14-393 were among 12 fragmentation, overlap, and duplication areas in GAO's 2015 Annual Report Additional Opportunities to Reduce Fragmentation, Overlap, and Duplication and Achieve Other Financial Benefits, GAO-15-404SP, published Apr 14, 2015. In it, GAO questioned Commerce and SBA's determination that Export Outreach Teams would be more effective with a narrower focus on conducting outreach events with businesses rather than internal planning events with partners. GAO believes that narrowing the focus would address only one of the program's two objectives--increasing awareness of available export resources. This approach would not address the second objective--enhancing interagency and intergovernmental collaboration. Examples of Export Outreach Team activities that would address the second objective include sharing best practices for client services, and developing referral protocols that include information about federal, state, and local agency responsibilities and the circumstances under which a business would be referred from one agency to another.
Recommendation: To improve federal-state collaboration in providing export promotion services in accordance with the National Export Initiative, and the Export Enhancement Act of 1992, the Secretary of Commerce, as Chair of the TPCC, should improve implementation of the Export Outreach Teams to better achieve their intended outcomes. This could include taking steps, including better monitoring, to ensure that key local participants are invited, that meetings are held as expected, and that the Export Outreach Teams seek to both increase awareness of available export resources and enhance interagency and intergovernmental collaboration.
Agency Affected: Department of Commerce
Comments: Commerce notified GAO that it will implement the recommendation as part of its efforts to promote exports and foreign direct investment under National Export Initiative/Next, including working with SIDO on joint planning and SIDO's annual membership survey and applying best practices in conducting case studies with Global Cities. In May 2015, a spokesperson for SIDO told GAO that SIDO was working with Commerce to improve coordination. For example, Commerce officials participated in SIDO's 2015 Annual Conference, where a number of "deliverables" to enhance Federal - State collaboration were identified. GAO is continuing to monitor the implementation of these planned initiatives.
Recommendation: To improve federal-state collaboration in providing export promotion services in accordance with the National Export Initiative, and the Export Enhancement Act of 1992, the Secretary of Commerce, as Chair of the TPCC, should take steps consistent with key practices for collaboration to enhance TPCC agencies' partnering on export promotion with nonfederal entities, such as State International Development Organizations and Global Cities. This could include reassessing and strengthening the TPCC's intergovernmental partnerships by clarifying expected outcomes, defining roles and responsibilities, monitoring results, and planning resource needs.
Agency Affected: Department of Commerce