Dr. Bruce Alberts
President, National Academy of Sciences
Chairman, National Research Council
Subcommittee on Government Information and Management
Committee of Government Reform and Oversight
U.S. House of Representatives
July 14, 1998
Good Afternoon, Mr. Chairman and Ms. Maloney.
Since my appearance here last November, when this Subcommittee was considering amending the Federal Advisory Committee Act, the National Academy of Sciences has been busy in meeting the requirements of P.L. 105-153, which was enacted on December 17, 1997.
We find our duties under Section 15 of this law to be very reasonable and we believe that they have had a positive effect by making our deliberations and processes more accessible and transparent to the interested public.
What I would like to do this afternoon, Mr. Chairman, is to provide the Subcommittee a brief review of our procedures for complying with Section 15 of FACA and summarize some of the results thus far. We will then give you a brief demonstration of how our Worldwide Web site is being used to provide information to the public about our committees, meetings and proceedings. This Subcommittee is of course very interested in the impact of information technologies on government and its operations, and we are convinced that it would not have been possible to achieve our present level of compliance without these new tools, which represent a major improvement over more traditional means of informing the public--- such as the federal register.
To review, Mr. Chairman, Section 15 of FACA requires the Academy to first, provide public notice of the committee members that it has tentatively appointed to a study committee, and to make a provision for public comment on the membership of those committees. Second, it requires that every data gathering meeting be open to the public with certain exceptions provided for in the act. Third, it requires that the public be notified in advance of all data gathering meetings of the study committees and that a brief summary be made available for review by the public for those meetings that the Academy has closed. Fourth, it requires that we maintain a publicly accessible file of all written materials that are presented to the study committee by all non-Academy individuals. Finally, the act requires that we publicize the names of those individuals whom we select as peer reviewers of our work, after the study is finished. According to the law, if these requirements are not met, an agency is prohibited from utilizing the report. Thus at the end of each study, the relevant Academy staff certify to the government that the Section 15 requirements have been substantially complied with according to law.
Our system for complying with the notice requirements in Section 15 is based on an extensive use of our Worldwide Web site at www.nationalacademies.org.
First, when a study is initiated, we give that project a number, and essentially create a separate home page for that project on the Academy’s Web site. The responsible staff officer on a study must insure that proper information is entered into a standard electronic form, or template, which is then posted to our Web site. The requirements that each staff officer needs to follow are outlined in a detailed protocol that is the same for all units of the Academy. The information provided by the staff officer includes the project scope, duration, details of committee membership, dates and location of data gathering meetings and agendas for sessions open to public participation. A summary following the conclusions of those meetings that are closed to participation by non-Academy individuals is also posted.
While each of the hundreds of studies that we carry out has its own page on the Web, we have made it easy for someone from the general public to search our site to find a committee of interest. To display all new committees, one simply clicks on the heading “current projects” on the Academy’s main web page, and then view our projects by date. There are also separate views by subject and by title, and most recently, a view listing committees whose membership remains open for public comment. Once a person has identified the project he or she is interested in, the web address for that project can be printed out, and/or stored on a book mark in one’s computer. The project can then be directly called up to track
its current status and planned meetings.
The public can submit comments electronically to the Academy on every project record on the Web site. This feedback process can be used to make comments on the membership of the committee, for consideration within 20 days after the initial posting, to offer information or data to the committee, or to ask questions.
We also have a formal system for analyzing and revealing the potential conflicts of interest of each committee member, as required in Section 15. This is also a responsibility that we take very seriously.
So far, Mr. Chairman, we think that the system is working well. We have, since the act was signed last December 17th, established 319 committee records. (This number includes some committees that were established before December 17, 1997, since relevant committees that were ongoing as of that date have been included in this database). For the two month period of May and June of this year, our current projects Web site had approximately 99,000 hits, or an average of 1,650 per day. We are finding that some of the heaviest users of our site are in the government. To date, we have received about 180 comments (of all types) through the current projects system. Of these, about 120 should be considered valid since about a third of the comments represent duplicate submissions. There are about 20 distinctive comments specifically directed at committee membership, addressing less than 5 per cent of the 319 committee records. It is still too early to know the true significance of these figures, but they do represent clear evidence that our system is being used. To ensure that this system is operating accurately, we have special staff assigned to regularly and systematically monitor our compliance. We also have staff assigned to improving the software, who have done an efficient job of setting up and operating a complex system under severe time constraints.
The Academy will continue to devote the necessary resources to the system to ensure its quality. We also look forward to the review of the General Services Administration (GSA) as required by P.L. 105-153, as well as to the review being conducted by the General Accounting Office on our compliance with Section 15.
We have had an ongoing and productive dialogue with the GSA concerning the regulations that they are going to publish later this year, and we hope that our information has been useful to the agency.
We continue to be open to suggestions for improvement. For instance, we received a complaint from one of the litigants in last year’s lawsuits that preceded P.L.105-153, who requested a more prominent display of information about upcoming projects. We have responded to his request and, in that process, made some system enhancements.
In short, Mr. Chairman, we believe we have created a system that is very responsive to the act. While we are committed to the system’s continual improvement, we feel that we have succeeded in responding to the intent of P.L. 105-153, which was to increase public awareness and access to our processes, without compromising our independence. I hope that this Committee will agree that we have succeeded in responding to the desires of Congress.
I would now like to show you a brief demonstration of how the Web site I described works, which is the most meaningful way of demonstrating our system.