Taking Stock of FCC Paperwork Burdens

I am pleased that the Commission has begun to take steps to review eliminate unnecessary burdens on the communications industry.[1]   It is a worthy task, and something I have been advocating for since I arrived at the agency almost three and half years ago. As the Commission embarks on these efforts, I thought it would be helpful to understand the current state of play. There are many types of costs that an agency can put on regulatees, but lacking solid information on most burdens due to the absence of cost-benefit analyses in prior items, I want to at least highlight one category of costs that the agency is required to track: paperwork burdens.

The Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) requires the FCC to seek Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approval before asking entities to fill out forms, maintain records, or disclose information to others. The intent was to require agencies to carefully consider the need for additional information before collecting it, thereby minimizing burdens. Once approved, the cost estimates are posted online and searchable by agency.

Even I was a bit surprised to see the extent of the FCC’s information collection efforts, which seem disproportionately costly. According to OMB, as of the end of February, the FCC has 423 active collections demanding 457,355,706 responses each year requiring a total of 73,200,049 hours to complete at a total cost of $798,204,803. In short hand, that’s 73 million hours and $800 million annually just to fill out FCC paperwork, and there is a decent chance that these figures are lowballed. That is well above the cost figures of several other major agencies, as seen below.

Agency Total Cost of Active Information Collections
Department of Education $305,014
Department of Housing & Urban Development $1,942,728
Department of Veterans Affairs $11,141,104
Department of Energy $49,550,308
Department of the Interior $178,634,533
Department of Agriculture $397,848,225
FCC $798,204,803

While I strongly believe in data driven decision making and the need to ensure accountability, I have to question how much of the existing information collection is truly justified. I’ve observed that every new FCC policy seems to require a brand new data collection. And, once in place, the rules can live on long past their usefulness. Moreover, without sufficient coordination within the agency, the burdens can pile up without any clear understanding of the total burden on any given segment of the industry.

For example, I have heard from small rural telephone companies that now have to make close to 100 filings with the FCC each year. That’s a significant amount of time and resources that are being diverted away from delivering service to consumers. Last March, the Commission sought comment on eliminating several types of burdens on these providers, which I viewed as the tip of the iceberg. The Commission even observed that these small companies may be subject to duplicative sets of network outage reporting requirements and sought comment on whether to eliminate one set. Almost a year later, the Notice remains pending. In addition to acting quickly on these known problems, the agency should complete a holistic data review to determine which collections remain necessary, look at ways to streamline those collections, and eliminate those that are duplicative or unnecessary.

I am also troubled that the Commission does not currently track burdens by industry segment or even by size. The Regulatory Flexibility Act (RFA) requires federal agencies to review regulations for their impact on small businesses and consider less burdensome alternatives. Therefore, in each rulemaking item, there is a lengthy appendix listing all of the types of small entities impacted by the Commission’s action. I asked our Office of Communications Business Opportunities, which is the agency’s small business liaison, for information on the total burdens on each type of small business regulated by the agency, as well as the number of times that the Commission considered but declined to make accommodations for small businesses. However, they were unable to provide the requested information because they do not keep track of it. In fact, the response was that it is not required under the Regulatory Flexibility Act, the Paperwork Reduction Act, or any executive order. This explanation completely missed the point. These data points and other basic data should be available to help us understand the impact of the Commission’s activities. Therefore, I recommend that, going forward, we require OCBO to begin tracking this information. At a minimum, the agency should be able to catalog and track the paperwork burdens imposed on small providers given that it is already required to calculate those costs for PRA and already specifies which small providers are impacted by rule changes for purposes of the RFA. Combining the two should not be too hard, and would be worth the effort.

At the same time, the Commission should enthusiastically embrace – whether required to do so or voluntarily – the Administration’s Executive Order creating regulatory reform officers and agency regulatory reform task forces. The idea is simple: assemble dedicated people in each government agency to make recommendations to repeal or simplify existing regulations that are unnecessary, burdensome or harmful to the economy. While seemingly repetitive of efforts already underway, it has some unique proprieties that could generate new reform ideas not considered or explored before. In the end, it’s a sound and worthy goal to provide strong and vibrant American industries to employee Americans and improve economic productivity. One of the first jobs of the new FCC task force should be to examine our paperwork burdens.

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As I’ve said before, regulations impose costs on companies and, ultimately, consumers. We must be careful not to place undue burdens on companies whether in specific rulemakings, or as the product of cumulative Commission actions. By tracking and regularly reviewing the requirements we put on providers, we can better ensure that the costs we do impose are narrowly tailored and truly warranted.

 


[1] This is being done both informally on an ad-hoc basis and as part of the Commission’s biennial review obligations under Section 11 of the Communications Act. .


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