The News Without Transparency: Health and Human Services Department Contributes to Big Government Spending on Advisory Committees

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Last spring the government technology newspaper Federal Computer Week highlighted the Health and Human Services Department for spending $1.6 billion on advisory committees over the last decade, which is half of the $3.2 billion total the federal government spent on these committees during the same time period.

These numbers were obtained using the General Services Administration’s new eFACA website. The website was developed “to make information from the Federal Advisory Committee Act database easier to find, understand, and use,” according to the main page. This sort of information has been collected by GSA since 1972, but until recently had been hosted in a notoriously hard-to-use database.

These advisory committees have come under fire for a lack of transparency in other areas as well as spending, such as influence and access. President Obama attempted to address some concerns in June 2010 with a Presidential Memo prohibiting federally registered lobbyists from serving on these committees.

Earlier this fall the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee passed legislation seeking to make these committees more accountable. The legislation then moved to the Ways and Means Committee but has not made any progress since then. GSA’s eFACA website and a study being conducted by the Administrative Conference of the United States on FACA are two steps forward for increasing transparency in this regard, according to the Project for Government Oversight.

The FCW article goes on to list the agencies that have spent the most on advisory committees over the last decade. HHS tops the list, followed by the following:

  • The Defense Department at $255 million.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency at $137 million.
  • The Interior Department at $88 million.
  • The Energy Department at $74 million.
  • The Veterans Affairs Department at $68 million.
The article also states that overall, federal agency spending rose “from $226 million in 2001 to $384 million in 2006. It then dropped to $343 million in 2008 before rising again in 2010 to $387 million.”

The eFACA website breaks down spending by agency starting in 2001 and continuing through 2010. The website allows searches by committee topics, types of committees, committees by agency, and committees terminated. The website also provides contact information for agency Committee Management Officers – the agency contact when seeking information related to advisory committees.

Our Influence Explorer and Transparency Data also include advisory committee data. Using Influence Explorer, just type in the person, politician or organization you are searching for. Your search results will indicate whether that person (or anyone from the organization) has served on an advisory committee. You can also see which committee and when he or she served.

Using Transparency Data you can search by the year (for example, there were 23,398 advisory committee members in 2011), the organization a committee member is affiliated with, the agency associated with the committee, the name of the committee, the name of the member, or any combination of those criteria. Check it out!

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“The News Without Transparency” shows you what the news would look like without public access to information. Laws and regulations that force the government to make the data it has publicly available are absolutely vital, along with services that take that raw data and make it easy for reporters to write sentences like the ones we’ve redacted in the piece above. If you have an article you’d like us to put through the redaction machine, please send us an email at mbuck@sunlightfoundation.com.

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