Computing Applications Viewpoints

Advising Policymakers Is More Than Just Providing Advice

What are the factors that make certain advisory committee reports successful while others are not?
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In our September column we discussed the somewhat grim truth that good science and the presence of a rational argument do not guarantee that policymakers will do the "right thing" when crafting policy. The intersection of science and politics is fraught with compromise and trade-offs, and elected representatives will always seek to balance competing interests. While this might appear to diminish the importance of getting sound science and technical advice to policymakers, the reality is that science can have a significant impact on policy—particularly in the context of federal advisory committees. But not all panels and advisory boards are created equal.

In 1999, the President’s Information Technology Advisory Council (PITAC) issued a report, Information Technology Research: Investing in Our Future, reviewing the U.S. federal government’s investment in IT research and calling for substantial new investments in basic IT research. Six years later, a re-formed, newly populated PITAC issued a report on cyber security, calling the research portfolio unbalanced toward short-term investments and recommending modest new resources be dedicated toward long-term cyber security research. The 1999 report helped set in motion one of the largest increases in funding for IT basic research, while the 2005 cyber security report was largely ignored by policy leaders. In both cases these advisory committees had highly qualified members, produced well-grounded reports, and had specific recommendations. So what makes one advisory committee report successful, while another collects dust?

With thousands of advisory committees of all different shapes and sizes operating each year it is difficult to draw specific conclusions. We have had the fortunate experience to work with many members of our community who have been asked to serve on advisory committees, or asked to staff or convene them while working as officials in federal agencies. Drawing from these experiences, we have identified some general characteristics—transparency, access to key staff, understanding the political context and balance—that successful panels appear to share, and that policymakers and advisory committee members should strive to emulate when establishing a panel.

Federal advisory committees lay at the heart of an age-old tension of how to inject scientific knowledge into the policy-making process. Congress or the Executive Branch can create committees to serve a number of different roles, and usually they are comprised of a mix of outside experts and government officials. Official committees are chartered under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which provides the framework for their membership, operations, and oversight. With approximately 1,000 advisory committees operating for the U.S. federal government in any given year, they come with differing membership, goals, focus, and scoping.a

There are "blue ribbon" commissions, typically created to provide some focused policy direction; standing committees, usually created by law, such as the now-disbanded PITAC, to provide high-level strategic direction; highly specialized committees providing detailed guidance on narrow technical problems, and countless other incarnations mixing these three areas. Of growing importance to the scientific community is a fourth type created under the National Academies. Congress and the administration routinely fund the Academies to bring together top technical and subject matter experts to provide recommendations on some of the most difficult policy issues. The Academies are becoming the scientific advisory arm of the U.S. federal government.

Advisory committees are created for a number of reasons. It is common for members of Congress, mired in difficult policy negotiations, to create an advisory committee to break political deadlock over a key issue. This effectively delays some difficult decision until a later date with an implicit promise the issue will be revisited when a report is issued. While this is a fairly common scenario, there are many others. Agencies can create committees to answer very narrow, highly technical questions; look to standing committees for high-level strategic advice; or get the perspective of many different groups before regulating an industry.

It is common for members of Congress, mired in difficult policy negotiations, to create an advisory committee to break political deadlock over a key issue.

Given the variation in types of committees combined with the numerous circumstances motivating their creation, the different contexts in which advisory committees operate is infinite. But the ultimate goal for any advisory committee is to provide useful recommendations and have their advice be heard, considered, and acted upon. Answering what will make an advisory committee effective or not depends on many variables (including completely unanticipated external events), but our view is that some general, largely interconnected rules, can apply to most advisory committees.

Transparency. The mission and focus should be clear to members of the committee, to the staff or principles receiving the advice, and to the public. FACA and agency guidance outline the requirements for chartering a committee and the ground rules for public or private meetings, but there is more to transparency than open meetings and what is spelled out in official documents. Committee members should have a good sense of the goals of the programs they are reviewing, the key questions officials would like answered and, perhaps most importantly, whether those officials are willing to listen to the answers. Without such information committees can spend endless cycles looking for direction.

Access. Access encompasses a number of aspects from interacting with senior policymakers to support from lower-level staff. First, committee members should have access to dedicated agency staff to help with in-depth research. Key documents are often buried deep within a bureaucracy and can only be obtained by having a staff advocate on the inside. Second, since most members of advisory committees are volunteers, whether a committee has support from staff to draft reports can mean the difference between having a final product that is a comprehensive report or a basic PowerPoint presentation. Third, the committee should have the ear of policymakers that can make or help drive new policy directions. FACA requires that agencies appoint staff to oversee and attend meetings, and approve a committee’s agenda, but this engagement can vary widely from active participation of senior officials to pro forma staff attendance.

One particularly successful model has been the U.S. Department of Defense’s Information Science and Technology Board. These advisory committees typically have a narrow technical focus and, in choosing topics, have a fair amount of interaction with senior department managers. This level of engagement can lead to a potential tradeoff between independence and success that is typical of many committees. As ISAT member Peter Lee from the Carnegie Mellon computer science department said, "While the input of DARPA program managers in the selection of study topics can be viewed as ‘meddling’, it also means that ISAT studies have an unusually high ‘hit rate’, in the sense of influencing DARPA investment decisions, particularly in new programs."b

Understanding Political Context. The type of access a committee has often goes hand-in-hand with the political context in which it operates. These contexts cover a wide spectrum. At one end, the scientific and technical questions being asked are highly specific and the values of those asking for the report are broadly shared leading to a narrow context. For example, the blue-ribbon commission investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster received widespread support because members of both major political parties shared the same values about finding what led to the disaster and addressing the issues with the manned space flight program. At the other end, committee members themselves or the intended audience of policymakers may have widely divergent values about the key policy issue under consideration by the committee. This can lead to a lack of access to key policymakers, who may seek to marginalize a committee, or a report that is political non-starter and ends up gathering dust.

At times the U.S. Homeland Security’s Privacy Advisory Committee, which often deals with scientific and technical questions underpinning privacy issues, has produced reports on controversial subjects where it is clear the committee and the administration have two different sets of values, hampering the impact of the committee and often leading to technical recommendations not being adequately addressed. Last year, the committee issued a report questioning the proposed implementation of a highly controversial federal driver’s license identification standard for all 50 states called the "Real ID" Act.c Many from the privacy and technical communities shared the committee’s concerns and recommendations (including ACM’s U.S. Public Policy Committee), but the divergence of values between the committee and the administration ultimately marginalized the committee on the issue and the report seemed to have little impact on the administration’s final policy choices.

Navigating the political landscape is arguably one of the most difficult things an advisory committee can do. In fact, we’ve heard the view that advisory committees simply shouldn’t worry about politics and the "science" should win out. But this view doesn’t take into account the reality of the policy-making process. As we noted in our September column, although it is a worthwhile goal to present the best science, simply providing the best science will not necessarily lead to a more "scientifically based" policy choice. Policy-making is built upon a political system that, for the most part, seeks to resolve value differences, not scientific differences, between groups. The same dynamic applies to scientific and technical advisory committees, as the findings they make will have to feed back into the political system that called for the advisory committee. Committees should have a good understanding of whether their recommendations are realistic, just as policymakers should truly listen to the committee to see where science and technology can help expand the set of options available and change the political dynamics.

Navigating the political landscape is arguably one of the most difficult things an advisory committee can do.

Balance. Despite requirements for both regional and ideological balance in FACA, the selection of advisory committee members remains highly controversial. Outside groups have claimed the current administration has stacked advisory committees to provide third-party validation of predetermined policy decisions instead of giving truly impartial advice. The issue took on such significance that the National Academies issued a report commenting on advisory committee membership stating, "With regard to appointing scientists and engineers to federal advisory committees, charges have surfaced recently that the process of making these appointments has become politicized and results in a skewing of the impartial perspective critical to independent advice. It is essential that the government’s capacity to consider and incorporate science and technology information as part of the basis for public-policy decisions not be compromised by unnecessary obstacles."d

In recent years, this issue has dominated the discussion surrounding scientific and technical advisory committees. While we agree ensuring balanced scientific representation is important, we would argue there is another key factor to consider. Having communicators and leaders that can navigate the political waters and push the committee’s findings and recommendations is equally important. Simply ensuring balance and appropriate technical focus without looking at the broader issues involved with most advisory committees propagates the myth that providing the "right" scientific information will naturally lead to better policy. In our view, the most effective committees have all had some members who were effective communicators and who were willing to carry the committee’s recommendations to other audiences.

The intersection of science and policy is, by necessity, complex and imperfect. While policymakers often strive to understand the science underpinning issues before them, the desire to balance the needs of a seemingly endless collection of stakeholders can often render the evidence of that understanding very difficult to find. Increasingly, however, issues of science and technology are fundamental to almost every major policy issue before Congress and the administration—national security, voting rights, health care, and the economy—to name just a few. It has never been more important that federal policymakers get timely and pertinent science and technology advice, and it has never been more important that members of the science and technology community participate actively in this process. We hope our observations will help make the time and effort of those participants more effective.

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    a. According to the General Services Administration, there were 963 advisory committees operating under FACA during Fiscal Year 2008, see summary data at http://www.fldo.gov/facadatabase/AgenciesList.asp.

    b. P. Lee. Guestrin, Goldstein, and Haigh present DARPA ISAT study. CS Diary, http://www.csdhead.cs.cmu.edu/blog/2007/10/15/guestrin-goldstein-and-haigh-present-darpa-isat-study/(Oct. 15, 2007).

    c. See http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/privacy/privacy_advcom_05-2007_realid.pdf.

    d. Science and Technology in the National Interest: Ensuring the Best Presidential and Federal Advisory Committee Science and Technology Appointments. The National Academies Press, 2005.

    DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1409360.1409370

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