Brain drain; admin failures threaten FCC role

GAO report critical of FCC decision-making process

The Federal Communications Commission has brain drain and administration problems that could decrease its effectiveness at a time when advanced service technologies such as wireless and broadband present significant regulatory challenges.  

On the brain drain front, a report out today from watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office stated that from fiscal year 2003 to 2008, the number of engineers at FCC decreased by 10%, from 310 to 280. Similarly, from fiscal year 2003 to 2008, the overall number of economists decreased by 14%, from 63 to 54.  While the number of engineers and economists has decreased from 2003 to 2008, the percentage of the workforce comprised of engineers and economists remained the same. In addition, the FCC estimates that 45 % of supervisory engineers will be eligible for retirement by 2011. 

According to the GAO, the FCC has started hiring a larger number of engineers to replace retiring engineers and augment its engineering staff, most hires have been at the entry level. Of the 53 engineers hired in fiscal years 2007 and 2008, 43 were entry-level hires. During this same period, 30 engineers retired.  Experts said recent graduates sometimes have little experience or understanding of how policies affect industry.

The need to grow experienced staff would help improve FCC's understanding of industry issues and could lead to better policies, according to the GAO report.  

For economists, FCC faces an even higher share of staff eligible for retirement by 2011. FCC reports that, as of April 2009, 67 % of supervisory economists will be eligible to retire. The  FCC may face challenges in addressing these impending retirements because 56% of nonsupervisory economists are also eligible to retire, and FCC has  not hired any economists in fiscal years 2007 and 2008,  the GAO stated. 

According to the GAO: "The overall decline in the number of key occupational staff occurred during a period of increased need for technical, economic, and business expertise. New technologies, such as rapid growth in handheld and wireless devices, are challenging existing regulatory structures. FCC also cited a number of economic issues that impact the expertise and workforce required, such as marketplace consolidation and the need to craft economic incentives for incumbent spectrum users to relocate to other spectrum." 

The GAO notes that the  FCC has tried to bolster its workforce.  It has added hiring and staff development programs designed to recruit new staff and develop the skills of its existing staff. While these programs are positive steps that can help attract, retain, and train new staff, it is not clear that these efforts are sufficient to address expertise gaps caused by retirements, the GAO noted.  

The FCC added that  it can shift staff from one bureau to another as needs arise and the regulatory environment changes. For example, as the need for tariff regulation decreased, FCC shifted staff from that area into other areas, the GAO stated.

 While brain drain is a big concern, the GAO said there were other administrative items that need to be addressed. From the GAO report: 

  • The FCC's lack of written procedures for aiding the flow of information within the agency has in some cases led to ineffective interbureau coordination and allowed prior chairmen to limit internal communication among staff.
  • It is unclear whether the roles of the Office of Engineering and Technology and the Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis-two offices established to provide independent expertise on complex, crosscutting issues-are clearly defined or are overly subject to a chairman's preferences. Without written coordination procedures or clearly defined roles and responsibilities, FCC may be limited in its ability to address crosscutting issues.
  • At the commission level, the lack of statutory requirements or internal policies on commissioners' rights and responsibilities during the decision-making process, including their right to bureau and office analysis, has let some chairmen control how and when commissioners receive information from the bureaus and offices. Other independent regulatory agencies have varied in how they address this issue. Ultimately, if commissioners do not have adequate access to information, then the benefits of the commission structure-robust group discourse and informed deliberation and decision making-may be hampered.
  • While FCC relies heavily on public input to inform its decisions, it tends to do so without giving the public access to the actual text of a given proposal. If parties are able to submit vague summaries that may not fully reflect meetings between FCC officials and outside parties, then stakeholders will continue to question whether commission decisions are being influenced by information that was not subject to public comment or rebuttal and that, in some cases, is submitted just before a commission vote, the GAO stated. 

For its part the FCC said it has begun taking steps to address the areas of concern identified by the GAO. For example, the FCC stated that it is in the midst of a review of FCC's existing processes. According to the GAO: "As part of this process, the FCC is reviewing procedures for interbureau communication, as well as prior and current practices for commissioner and staff communication. The FCC stated that it would identify and incorporate lessons learned and best practices into future internal procedures. The FCC did not specifically state whether future policies on commissioner access to bureau and office information during the decision-making process would be made publicly available or provided to FCC's congressional oversight committees," the GAO report stated. 

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