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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Free at Last
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Just days after getting the nod, Acting FCC Chairman Michael J. Copps has liberated the FCC staff!  In the spirit of openness and transparency championed by the Obama Administration, they are now free to communicate with one another and free to respond to information requests from all of the Commissioners.

In published remarks addressed to the FCC staff, Acting Chairman Copps stated:

The Digital Age means we are living at a time of communications convergence where wireless, wireline and video communications are more and more intertwined. So too must there be convergence within the FCC. I don't mean this requires physically merging different offices, and even if it did, an Acting Chairmanship is not the mechanism to launch such a process. But it does require an open exchange of ideas in an effort to find solutions to the challenges confronting us. That progress can--that progress must--begin right away. There is no reason I can see for not having the various Bureaus and Offices more closely collaborating with each other on issues of mutual interest. As just one example, why not include the General Counsel's office, EB, CGB, OCBO and the Office of Workplace Diversity early on to help solve problems upfront rather than having to try and fix them on the back end after things have gone wrong? Communications is as cross-cutting as anything can be and the agency dealing with communications needs to be cross-cutting, too. If we can't communicate with ourselves, we shouldn't have the word "Communications" in our title.

Who would ever have imagined a situation where the staffs in these offices were not freely communicating with one another other to proactively solve problems?  And, on the equally important matter of staff being able to freely communicate with the other Commissioners, Acting Chairman Copps stated:

I also want to ensure my Commissioner colleagues have unfettered access to the Bureaus, with the presumption being that requests for information will be honored, and that there will be positive outreach from the Bureaus and Offices to them, with the presumption being that important information shouldn't have to be asked for - it should be provided. I realize this is not a bureau-created problem, but, beginning now, requests from Commissioners' offices - not just the Chairman's Office -- should be answered directly and as quickly as possibly, just as if the Chairman's Office is asking for it and without the need for running these requests through the Chairman's office first--the only exception I can currently think of being the very narrow one that such requests not be unusually time-consuming or necessitate an excessive juggling of Bureau or Office resources. In those cases, we will attempt to craft a workable solution.

Thus, in a few short statements, the new Acting Chairman has confirmed what FCC insiders, outside practitioners, and the House staff investigating former Chairman Kevin Martin's management practices have long known: Commission staffers were not permitted to freely communicate either with one another, or with the other Commissioners. The liberation of the staff, together with changes concerning how the Bureaus and Offices work with each other and how the Commission communications with the public, certainly falls under the category of "change we can believe in."

In addition to opening the lines of communication within the FCC, Acting Chairman Copps has stated that there should be a renewed focus on professional development at the agency, directing that:  "speaking and writing opportunities should be encouraged whenever practicable;" FCC advisory committees should be taken seriously to enable the FCC to solicit and receive useful outside advice; and that the Commission should do more to make its expertise and creative thought available to the outside world on a more regular basis.

One way to do this is to produce high-quality, timely reports for Congress to inform the public policy dialogue--reports that are non-partisan, truly instructive and beyond reproach. Another important way to do this is through White Papers on a variety of public policy issues that would be put out for public consumption. These various reports and White Papers wouldn't speak for the Commission, but they would help people understand important communications issues and thereby enhance the communications dialogue that is so important to America's future. Such papers would also educate the media on important communications issues facing the country, and be another important source for both Congressional and Administration policy planning. So we will begin working to build a framework and develop priorities and procedures for such reports and papers.

This addresses several extremely important short-comings in recent FCC practice.  Not only was the FCC routinely late in its production of statistical reports under the Acting Chairman's predecessor, see here and here, its production of White Papers and "Working Papers" through the Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis (formerly the "Office of Plans and Policy") ground to a near complete halt. Only three OSP Working Papers were released in the past four years, and the three were all produced by the same two authors.

Acting Chairman Copps has outlined other important changes in how the FCC does business, including establishing a calendar for regular open meetings in advance, and updating the FCC's website to be more user-friendly, particularly its Digital TV Transition pages. These and other changes and commitments together constitute an extremely promising start for Acting Chairman Copps, and his commitment to transparency and order bode very well for the FCC, its staff, the companies the agency regulates, and the American public.

posted by Barbara Esbin @ 8:04 AM | The FCC

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