HHS Federal Advisory Committees’ Use of Advanced Communication Technology
The HHS Federal Advisory Committees (FACs) play a critical role in providing channels allowing the public to engage in federal decision making. There are approximately 270 federal advisory committees that currently provide HHS with advice and strategic input on a broad range of issues. In the winter of 2012, the HHS Office of the Secretary conducted a survey of the HHS FACs to understand how they use advanced communication technologies for both their own work and for purposes of public engagement. Of the 270 FACs surveyed, responses were received from 75. Of the responding FACs, over three quarters (78%) reported using advanced communication technologies in their work. Provided below are highlights of the survey findings:
- Over two thirds of the respondents (68%) reported using advanced communication technologies in their own work. The most widely utilized forms of technology were webcasting technologies (e.g. videocasts or WebEx), followed by electronic voting or ranking capabilities, collaboration tools (e.g. MAX or Microsoft Sharepoint), and E-document software (e.g., paperless office systems). To a lesser extent, committees reported using social networking sites and wikis.
- Over half of the FACs (54%) reported using advanced communication technologies to engage the public in their deliberations. The most widely utilized forms of technology were webcasting technologies (e.g. web-conferencing or video-conferencing). A handful of committees also reported using blogs, social networking sites, twitter, and electronic forums to engage the public. Over half of the respondents (54%) used these technologies for information dissemination to the public; nearly a quarter (22%) used these technologies to engage the public in their deliberations; and 17% used these technologies for information gathering prior to deliberations (e.g. for gaining public perspective on questions to consider).
- Most FACs reported that the use of advanced communication technologies has improved their ability to conduct work and engage the public. Nearly two-thirds (61%) reported an enhanced ability to disseminate information. Other benefits that were noted included: enhanced efficiency in conducting committee work (42%); increased discussions and deliberations among members (32%), increased public (30%); improved diversity among the public input (25%); and FAC members that are better informed of the public’s concerns and issues (18%). A number of FACs noted that the overall cost of hosting meetings is reduced as travel expenditures can be reduced and fewer staff resources are needed for travel planning; as materials can be sent electronically, rather than printed; and that member attendance and public participation has increased as a result of virtual meetings.
- We received over 40 comments and examples of the ways in which advanced communication technologies have benefitted FACS. Provided here are examples of them:
- “The use of Twitter to announce FAC updates and meeting information has allowed us to reach a broader audience; webcasting and archiving the webcasts of our meetings has helped the public to feel more engaged and allowed us a larger cross section of the public to view our FAC activities.”
- We have “used Webex during our last two advisory council meetings. Information technology has opened our meeting to the public and greatly increased participation of the public.” In addition, for committee members who have not been able to attend in person, it has allowed them to participate and contribute valuable information and advice during meetings.
- Our advisory committee “has used webinars for 15 of its 20 public meetings. The use of this technology allowed increased numbers of participants from around the country and the world by providing open and free access to the committee’s meetings and deliberations. The online webinar format facilitated timely and efficient meetings of the full committee in a manner that allowed them to deliberate and produce timely recommendations to the Secretary. Further, holding the meeting online as webinars eliminated the expenses commonly associated with in-person meetings.”
- “We frequently webcast our advisory committee meetings. As the public has gotten used to this service and come to rely on it, I find that I hear of more public interest in the meetings. Additionally, several people have contacted me with questions and expressed happiness that they do not need to travel for the meeting in order to see the proceedings.”
- FACs cited a number of barriers inhibiting their use of advanced communication technologies. The most widely cited barrier was that access to social media technologies are blocked for FAC members and staff (28%). Other barriers included: unclear agency policies with respect to use of social media (26%) and lack of training or knowledge on how to use these tools (25%). A number of FACs also mentioned the upfront cost and resources (e.g. equipment) and administrative burden associated with webcasting technologies, as well as the lack of in-house technical expertise as significant barriers to the use of advanced communication technologies.
- A number of FACs reported that they would be interested in better understanding and incorporating public priorities in crafting recommendations and policies. Some of the areas noted by FACs include: ensuring that the clinical trials system meets the needs of patients, physical activity guidelines, privacy and security quality measures, employment and health care, and the planning of agency and biomedical community research agendas.
- FACs recommended several actions that HHS could take to improve their use of advanced communication technologies: 1) provide a menu or toolkit of advanced communication tools available to FACs, 2) in cases where tools (such as webcasting) are not available, provide help to ensure low-cost universal access across HHS committees for public input, 3) develop guidelines or best practices for FAC use of social media technologies, and 4) provide training and technical help on the use of advanced communication technologies.