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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

White House Expands Micromanagement of Agency Activity

Today, the White House issued a memo to the heads of federal agencies regarding risk assessments — a process by which agencies identify and evaluate risks such as toxic exposure or structural failure. Susan Dudley, head of OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and Sharon Hays, a senior official in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, issued the memo. The memo takes existing principles from a 1995 White House memo and includes additional text in order to place the Bush White House spin on each item.

In January, the National Research Council (NRC), a National Academy of Science, urged the White House to abandon its previous effort to manage federal risk assessments — the much-maligned "Proposed Risk Assessment Bulletin." The bulletin proposed scientifically questionable standards which would have governed the risk assessment process of all federal agencies.

Although the memo is an improvement on the proposed bulletin, and although — because it is not mandatory — it will not necessarily have a big impact on agency practices, the memo still marks an attempt by the White House to micromanage agency actions. One way the memo does this is by reaffirming existing OMB policies which diminish agency discretion.

  • The memo reminds us that there are new requirements for agency "guidance documents" set out by the Good Guidance Practices Bulletin and amendments to Executive Order 12866. Apparently, the White House believes risk assessments (which are not just documents but entire processes) to be a form of guidance.
  • For risk management, the memo consistently urges agencies to consult OMB Circular A-4, a document spelling out the process by which agencies prepare cost-benefit analyses for regulatory activities. Even in a memo on risk assessment, the White House reminds us of its penchant for making economics the primary consideration in rulemaking.
  • The memo states, "The agency also should identify the sources of the underlying information … and the supporting data and models, so that the public can evaluate whether there may be some reason to question objectivity." While Reg•Watch is all for transparency and objectivity, this statement appears to be a thinly veiled attempt to promote Data Quality Act challenges (background on that here). DQA challenges are a favorite way of the White House and industry to delay regulation.

Like the proposed bulletin before it, the memo fails to identify a problem it seeks to correct. Federal agencies are full of individuals with vast expertise and experience. If there is some major problem with the conduct of risk assessments, Reg•Watch hasn't heard about it. The White House would be better off leaving expert discretion where it belongs — with the experts.

Posted by Matt Madia