A Look at Transparency and Federal Advisory Committees

In 1972 Congress passed the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA)  in response, in part, to widespread concerns that advisory committees did not represent the public interest and were too often closed to the public. Under FACA, committee meetings are presumptively open to the public. Yet, as we chart in our 2011 Secrecy Report, openness of federal advisory committees is increasingly the exception to the rule.

During Fiscal Year (FY) 2010, 72% of the 7,254 meetings of active federal advisory committees that fall under the FACA were completely closed to the public. As bad as it is, this statistic only partially captures the extent to which the public is closed out the working of advisory committees: meetings conducted by subcommittees and informal working groups are not subject to the public participation and public notice requirements of the FACA. Worse, the GSA FACA database does not track subcommittees and informal working groups (a loophole we would like Congress to close).

Breaking  the data that is available down further reveals that some components of the federal government are much more likely to close committee meetings to the public. In general, it appears that departments with the largest number of active committees are also the most secretive. The National Science Foundation and the Department of Health and Human Services list the largest number of actual meetings in FY2010, and report by far the largest percentage of closed meetings. As seen in the chart below, most government components are actually more likely to list open meetings than closed.

The data also show that the function of the committee is likely a good indicator as to whether or not its meetings will be open or closed. In FY 2010, only 3 of the 2,542 meetings held by committees that are charged with reviewing grants were open to the public.

On the other side of the ledger, 100% of meetings held by committees that advise on regulatory negotiations were open to the public.

Open meetings are an important part of transparent government. They allow the public to hear and understand what advice experts are giving the government. We urge Congress to reexamine and update FACA so that the presumption of openness is restored and we have a clear idea of how our government’s advisory committees conduct their — and our — business.

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