Due Process: The GASB Is Listening

Webster’s dictionary defines listen as "to hear something with thoughtful attention." This notion of "listen" was incorporated into the GASB’s mission statement, which requires the Board to "weigh carefully the views of its constituents in developing concepts and standards. . . ." Due process is the vehicle through which the GASB is able to accomplish this vital part of its mission.

Agenda Setting

Many people associate due process with the Board’s request for and consideration of comments on proposed standards. However, due process actually starts when a project is being considered for addition to the GASB’s technical agenda. In the past, the GASB held public hearings on potential agenda projects. This feedback was particularly valuable to the Board when it established the first technical agenda in 1984. Similar hearings were conducted in 1988. Since that time, the Board has relied heavily on the input received from the Governmental Accounting Standards Advisory Council (GASAC) and the Council’s agenda committee in making agenda decisions. The GASAC members also provide valuable input throughout all stages of the Board’s due process. Issues also are raised by individual Board members based on observations of practice and requests occasionally are received to review or reexamine an effective standard. Additionally, the GASB has made several formal appeals over the last several years for individuals and organizations to identify potential technical agenda projects and continues to welcome input on the agenda. Even when a potential project that is suggested by a constituent is not added to the technical agenda, the Board members and staff develop a thorough understanding of the issue being raised before taking action. An issue that does not make it onto the agenda may be reconsidered at a latter date due to changes in circumstances.

Project Stages

Before the potential project is added to the agenda, initial research is performed to identify the scope issues and issues that could be addressed in the project. Knowledgeable individuals are consulted on the issues, as needed or appropriate. An initial project prospectus is prepared so that the Board can consult with the GASAC about adding the project to the agenda. After GASAC input has been received, the Board then discusses an initial project prospectus at a public meeting.

Once a project has formally been added to the technical agenda, more detailed research begins. This research effort often includes surveys that are completed by all segments of the GASB’s constituency (financial statement preparers, auditors, and users) and interviews and focus groups with financial statement users. These forms of research, conducted by GASB staff and academic consultants, provide important information to the Board; however, without constituent participation, none of these forums for fact and opinion gathering would be useful in the Board’s deliberations.

After this research phase is completed a project prospectus, including a staff recommendation on how to proceed, is then prepared for the Board. The GASAC’s input generally is sought on whether the project should be added to the current agenda or long-term agenda, be placed on hold, or be dropped, before the final project prospectus is discussed by the Board at a public meeting. A Board vote is needed to move a project from one category to another (for example, from research to current). The reclassification or rejection of projects is announced in the GASB newsletter.

Shortly after a major project is added to the current agenda, a task force normally is appointed by the GASB chairman with input from the GASAC, other Board members, and GASB staff. A task force reflects the broad range of the GASB’s constituency. The Chairman takes special care to ensure that every task force has both constituent and geographical balance. The number of members on a given task force ranges from 15 to 25, depending on the complexity of the project. Task force members receive copies of all Board materials related to the project and often are asked to provide feedback as staff develop position papers. During the course of a project, a task force may formally meet with the Board once or twice to provide direct feedback.

Due Process Documents

As a project progresses, a decision is made about what type of due process document should be used to expose alternatives or proposals. Although the purpose of each due process document is described in the GASB Rules of Procedure, the form of document that is used at a particular stage of a project is decided by a vote of the Board.

Discussion Memorandum. For some projects, the first document is a Discussion Memorandum. This staff document is intended to present various accounting or financial reporting alternatives in a neutral fashion and requires the approval of only the Chairman; however, in practice, all members of the Board provide input to the process. This document has been used in several projects in the past (for example, measurement focus and basis of accounting, which was later incorporated into the projects that resulted in GASB Statements 33 and 34).

Like all due process documents that could ultimately lead to a final Statement, a Discussion Memorandum can be downloaded free from the GASB’s website, www.gasb.org. Members of the GASB’s subscription plan are notified immediately when due process documents become available.

Comments on all due process documents are requested from 30 to 120 days after the release of the document and may be submitted either in writing or by e-mail. The length of the exposure period is often dictated by the complexity of or controversy surrounding the project.

When a comment letter is submitted, the Board members and appropriate staff receive copies. In addition, the letter is scanned into the GASB’s database, and reports containing every comment by topic or issue are distributed to all Board members. Finally, representative comments are incorporated into staff papers presenting the pros and cons raised during due process on specific subjects. Therefore, every comment received is presented to the Board twice (and often three times) as subjects are being deliberated. This process is repeated for each stage of due process.

A Discussion Memorandum is often accompanied by at least one public hearing. Public hearings offer individuals and organizations an opportunity to express their views before the Board and offer the Board and staff an opportunity to ask questions about the positions presented. Public hearings are an important part of due process and have been used by the GASB for a number of projects at various stages.

Invitation to Comment. Complexity or controversy again dictates the next step in due process, which can be an Invitation to Comment. This staff document requires clearance by a majority of the Board before issuance. An Invitation to Comment may contain elements of a Discussion Memorandum, a Preliminary Views document (discussed next), or both. It normally is used when the Board has not reached a clear consensus on an issue. The GASB issued an Invitation to Comment in 1994 for the financial reporting model project that culminated in Statement 34.

Preliminary Views. A Preliminary Views document, the next in the due process arsenal, is a Board document and requires approval by a majority of the members of the Board before issuance. It is intended to set forth one or more preliminary views of the Board and is again used for projects that are complex or controversial. This document also can contain an alternative view that is shared by two or more Board members. A Preliminary Views was used in the pensions and financial reporting model projects, and most recently for pollution remediation obligations.

Exposure Draft. The final stage of due process is the Exposure Draft. For many projects, this document may be the first formal exposure of a Board proposal to the public. As the last step before a final standard, an Exposure Draft reflects consideration of the research conducted by the staff and outside consultants, input from the GASAC and the task force, and any previous due process feedback. The Board does its best to consider all viable alternatives for an issue when making a proposal in an Exposure Draft. Exposure Draft proposals will usually make it into the final standard unless compelling arguments are made in the exposure period, which highlights the need for constituents to actively participate in the process.

The Importance of Your Input

The Board does not know your position on a given issue unless you provide feedback. On any given due process document, the amount of feedback received is a relatively low number. For most projects, between 50 and 150 comment letters are submitted. However, on the reporting model project, a significantly greater number of comment letters were received. These comment letters resulted in substantial changes to the final standard. Often, what motivates someone to write the GASB is concern about a proposal; however, feedback should not be limited to just concerns. Even though due process is not a popular vote, comments that express either support or concern can assist the Board in developing its final conclusions. One compelling comment can make a difference.