Can Ivory Tower Academics and Policymakers Work Well Together?

At their best, federal advisory committees offer an efficient way for policymakers to obtain expert guidance on policy issues. But, in the wake of Grubergate, there’s room for improvement.
Author:
Publish date:
(Photo: intoit/Shutterstock)

(Photo: intoit/Shutterstock)

In an effort to increase consumer choice and foster competition on the health insurance exchanges, the federal government is turning to experts, calling for nominations for membership on a federal advisory board that will make recommendations to policymakers.

There have been many solicitations for policymakers to enact laws based on scientifically rigorous evidence. And policymakers often seek guidance from academics with relevant expertise. But collaborations between policymakers and academics can be imperfect. That became apparent after late 2014’s “Grubergate.”

Jonathan Gruber, a health economist and MIT professor, was an advisor to Governor Mitt Romney on Massachusetts health reform and President Obama on the Affordable Care Act. Gruber’s groundbreaking microsimulation models helped policymakers predict the impact of different policy alternatives as health reform legislation was under development.

Policymakers may be reluctant to seek guidance from academics if they believe academics lack discretion. And academics may be reluctant to engage with policymakers if they think it could lead to public scolding.

Yet Gruber made headlines when a series of statements that he made became public—statements that undermine the Obama administration’s position in an upcoming Supreme Court case, and statements suggesting that Democrats deceived the public with the passage of the health reform law. He also referenced “the stupidity of the American voter.”

Aside from the legal and political fallout, the incident is unfortunate because of its potential to undermine partnerships between policymakers and academics.

Policymakers may be reluctant to seek guidance from academics if they believe academics lack discretion. And academics may be reluctant to engage with policymakers if they think it could lead to public scolding, like the one experienced by Gruber by the House Oversight Committee in December.

The Gruber incident, coupled with Gallup poll data showing that many people believe government to be the most important problem facing the country, suggests an opportunity to assess and reform the ways in which policymakers seek guidance from academics. One of the most common ways they do that is by creating federal advisory committees, sometimes called advisory boards, commissions, task forces, or blue ribbon panels.

These federal advisory committees provide policymakers with ad hoc expert advice on complex topics using best available evidence. At any given time, there are approximately 1,000 FACs in operation with over 60,000 volunteer members, the majority of whom are academics or researchers. Current high-profile examples include the National Advisory Committee on Children and Disasters, the President’s Export Advisory Council, and the Fusion Energy Science Advisory Council.

At their best, advisory committees offer an efficient way for policymakers to obtain expert guidance on policy issues. And under the Federal Advisory Committee Act, advisory committees are required to be transparent in their work, by, for example, holding meetings that are open to the public and making all materials, such as minutes and report drafts, available upon request.

But there are opportunities for reform.

Some argue that federal advisory committees are wasteful and have little impact. The federal government spends approximately $400 million per year supporting committees, and there is no requirement for policymakers to implement their recommendations. Federal agencies staffing the committees are required to report annually on the percent of committee recommendations that have been fully or partially implemented, but there is considerable variation in how agencies report the data, making the information essentially useless.

Despite requirements for transparency, it is not easy to track the work of advisory committees. The General Services Administration is charged with implementing the Federal Advisory Committee Act, but its database of committee activities is incredibly difficult to navigate. Further, when creating advisory committees, Congress often fails to subject committees to the Act, meaning that the transparency requirements are not applicable.

A better understanding of the impact of FACs will help policymakers and the public decide whether advisory committees are worth the considerable expense, and help academics decide whether participation is worth their time. Simple reforms to make the work of advisory committees more transparent could also boost accountability and serve as a small step toward restoring the public’s faith in government.

It is unfortunate that the recent scandal surrounding Jonathan Gruber overshadowed his important contributions to policy. Modest reforms may help to put partnerships between policymakers and academics on stronger ground.

Related