U.S. drone advisory group’s secret meetings are not going well

By MICHAEL LARIS / Posted on October 25, 2017

A government advisory group has been holding confidential meetings to shape U.S. policy on drones, deliberating privately about who should regulate a burgeoning industry that will affect everything from package delivery to personal privacy.

The federal group includes industry insiders with a financial stake in the outcome and is co-chaired by a lobbyist for DJI, a Chinese drone maker that dominates the U.S. market. In January, the Federal Aviation Administration asked the group to figure out what influence state and local governments should have over drones in their communities.

The closed proceedings are billed as a way to promote thoughtful and unguarded exchanges — and eventual consensus — among government, community and industry interests. Instead, the process has been riven by suspicion and dysfunction, according to internal documents and emails obtained by The Washington Post, and interviews with participants.

One U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the group’s inner workings, said he found it “very bizarre” to have a representative of a “multibillion-dollar Chinese drone manufacturer” helping guide such a sensitive U.S. policy exercise — and doing it “out of the public eye.”

“I don’t think it set a wonderful tone,” the official said.

The group — formally known as Task Group 1 of the Drone Advisory Committee — is now teetering. Months of tensions came to a head recently when an FAA contractor that manages the group told members they had to sign a far-reaching confidentiality agreement to keep participating.

After some raised concerns, several groups were blocked from receiving draft documents meant to represent their own “common ground” positions, emails show.

“Please do not distribute this material to other TG1 members,” an executive from the FAA contractor wrote in an email.

In response to this and other issues, John Eagerton, chief of Alabama’s aeronautics bureau and a co-chair of the group; San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee (D); a representative of the University of Oklahoma; the National League of Cities; the National Association of Counties; and the National Conference of State Legislatures emailed a “statement of dissent” to other group members last month.

“Despite good faith efforts to engage in Task Group 1, many of us have been obstructed from meaningful participation and we all have serious concerns about the recommendations included in the draft reports,” they wrote.

Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor and senior adviser for the accountability group American Oversight, said the closed-door approach appears to violate open-meetings provisions of the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

“Americans should be aware of the advice the government is relying on in making decisions that affect us all. That’s why the advisory committee rules require transparency, so we are in on the process,” she said.

In a statement, the FAA said the act requires that a committee’s recommendations, and the meeting where they are presented to the FAA, be public. But it said there is a legal distinction between a “committee” and a subcommittee or task group. Lower-level panels generally “keep their conversations confidential to encourage open discussions and debate among the members,” it said.