A congressional study released on Thursday found serious shortcomings in the way the U.S. Federal Communications Commission handles complaints from consumers.
A study by the Government Accountability Office concluded that about 83 percent of the complaint investigations conducted by the FCC between 2003 and 2006 were closed without any enforcement action taken by the agency, and that it was impossible to determine why because the FCC did not collect enough data to follow up.
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is defending the way it tracks complaints, investigations, and enforcement, and it claims a critical government report is based on several inaccuracies.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a 53-page report this week saying the FCC doesn't properly collect and analyze data, making it impossible to analyze the effectiveness of its enforcement.
The FCC is charged with overseeing communications. It takes complaints from consumers and businesses and has latitude in terms of how to get companies to comply with telecommunications laws and rules.
The GAO report found that the FCC doesn't take enforcement action on about 83% of its investigations arising from complaints, and because of poor data collection, the GAO can't figure out why.
But FCC employees said they have already made some changes toward improvement and the GAO report is based on old information and inaccuracies.
The dispute comes as Congress investigates how the FCC handles complaints and makes decisions.
U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., issued a statement saying that the GAO report highlights some of the FCC's problems and a need for oversight.
"When more than 80% of complaints investigated by the FCC are closed without any meaningful enforcement action, and it isn't possible to determine why no action was taken, then it appears that the FCC has abdicated its duty to protect consumers," he said. "This GAO report clearly demonstrates why we cannot rely solely on the FCC to enforce complaints, and why it is important to have safeguards in place at both the federal and the state level, as is the case in my home state of Michigan."
The report said that the FCC received about 454,000 complaints from 2003 through 2006. During that time, number of annual complaints grew from 85,000 to 132,000, according to the report. The FCC processed about 95% of its complaints and opened 46,000 investigations, but only 9% of the investigations led to enforcement action, according to the GAO.
The report said that the FCC measures its enforcement impact by reviewing the amount of time it takes to close an investigation and other benchmarks, but it lacks management tools like measurable goals, a well-defined enforcement strategy, and evaluations related to enforcement goals.
"Without key management tools, FCC may have difficulty assuring Congress and other stakeholders that it is meeting its enforcement mission," the report stated.
That makes it difficult to analyze trends, determine the effectiveness of FCC enforcement, properly allocate resources, monitor key aspects of complaints and follow-up, and carry out its responsibilities, according to the GAO.
The GAO said the FCC should improve the way it collects and analyzes data and implement performance management practices.
Although the FCC maintains that it has implemented GAO recommendations to improve its databases and management tools, the GAO said that the commission didn't provide supporting documentation to back up its statements.
FCC Enforcement Bureau chief Kris Anne Monteith said that the FCC is almost finished planning and budgeting for database modifications that will improve the ability to monitor consumer complaints and improve case management. She also said that the FCC has created performance goals and incorporated tools to evaluate how well the goals are met.
In a letter to the GAO, Monteith said the report and its criticism rely on out-of-date information, giving a misleading picture of current practices. She also said that some of the GAO's figures are inaccurate because they state that no action was taken on occasions when the FCC determined compliance or lacked sufficient information to proceed.
Monteith said the GAO significantly understated the number of admonishments, warnings, citations, consent decrees, monetary forfeitures and notices of violations, while overstating the number of investigations opened from 2003 to 2006. She said it also stuck to information in databases and failed to draw information from investigative files.