A just-released study from the Government Accounting Office has recommended that the Federal Communications Commission take a number of steps to streamline its decision-making process, increase oversight of so-called ex parte comments and meeting from outside parties, and make it clear what access commissioners have to information from the FCC's bureaus.
The study was requested by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), following criticisms that the FCC, particularly under former chairman Kevin Martin, had problems getting some of the commissioners access to that information.
But the GAO is preaching to the choir under new chairman Julius Genachowski, whose mantra has been openness and transparency, though there were some criticisms from Republicans about how the network neutrality proposal came down.
He has even launched internal and external "reboot" Web sites to solicit comments on ways to reform the process and make it more collaborative and open.
Among the recommendations in the GAO report were to require the FCC to actually release the text of a proposed new rule or change before it is publicly voted on. The FCC will summarize the changes and staffers will talk about them at a post-meeting press conference, but in the past it has sometimes been months between a vote and the release of the actual order language.
GAO also recommended that each new FCC chairman develop and publicize at the outset how and to what extent commissioners can access information from bureaus during the decision-making process, as well as make that information available to the relevant government oversight committees.
Responding to the report, Markey said in a statement: "This report underscores the organizational challenges and opportunities facing the FCC. The rapid evolution of the telecommunications marketplace requires an agile agency, and reforms initiated by Chairman Genachowski have begun moving the FCC in a positive direction, particularly in the areas of transparency, public participation, and human capital management. I look forward to continued oversight of the FCC as it responds to the important findings in this report."
In the FCC's official comment on the findings, which was included in the report, it "generally agreed" with the GAO, and pointed out it was already taking steps along those lines including an ongoing internal review of its processes and making the texts of proposed rules available in Notices of Proposed Rulemakings.
The commission also said it may issue a rulemaking on changes to the ex parte process, which has been criticized for incomplete reporting of issues addressed in meetings with industry lobbyists.
But the FCC did not commit to publicizing future policies on commissioner access to information during decision making. "We believe these would be important steps in providing the transparency of FCC's decision making process," said GAO.
A Genachowski spokesman had no comment on the recommendations beyond the FCC's official response in the report.
"I am pleased chairman Genachowski has already launched a wholesale review of FCC process and that we are already seeing some results from that review," said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), chairman of the House Communications Subcommittee, to whom the report was also addressed in addition to Rep. Markey. "I look forward to further reforms at the FCC and urge the Chairman to continue to take steps to ensure that the FCC serves the public interest by being open, transparent and accountable."
Andrew Schwartzman, president of Media Access Project, wanted to make clear that GAO's report was a shot across the bow at the former, not current FCC stewardship.
"This is a very useful study, but it is very important to recognize it is a blueprint for assisting the current FCC in its ongoing reform initiative rather than a criticism of current managment," said Schwartzman. "The GAO conducted its research between August 2009 and October 2009. Chairman Genachowski did not take office until late June, 2009. Thus, while the study acknowledges that the chairman has undertaken an examination of the FCC's processes, it does not reflect any changes which might result from this ongoing initiative.