‘Baby steps’ for federal e-rulemaking process

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Federal rules affect many aspects of American life, ranging from whether truck drivers can send text messages to standards for the quality of drinking water.

But most of the more than 8,000 rules that federal government agencies establish each year take effect largely unnoticed by consumers, even though agencies are required to seek public comment. The feedback, which is usually dominated by lobbyists and industry-backed groups, is then typically analyzed by an agency before it finalizes a regulation.

Open government advocates agree that the rulemaking process is far more open than years ago, when individuals had to physically visit an agency’s reading room to get a look at public comments. However, as the two-year anniversary of an American Bar Association-led report recommending improvements comes up in October, tracking federal regulations remains difficult for ordinary Americans.

“I think they have made baby steps,” said Jerry Brito, who runs OpenRegs.com and teaches at George Mason University in Virginia. Brito was speaking specifically of Regulations.gov, the primary vehicle used by federal agencies to collect public comments on proposed rules.

Especially compared to the average website, Regulations.gov is difficult to use and the regulations hard to understand, Brito said.

However, Brito also praised the federal government for bringing almost all agencies under the Regulations.gov umbrella and upgrading the user interface, as well as adding several Web 2.0 tools. Those steps are not easy ones because individual agencies have their own systems and agendas, he said. “You’ve got all this bureaucracy in all these different agencies.”

The main overseer of Regulations.gov is the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Information Collection. Andrew Battin, acting director of that office, said the government-wide website has instituted a number of reforms. Those include adding RSS feeds and social media tools, among other changes.

Also, Battin says he reviews public complaints and suggestions about the usability of the site at Regulations.gov/exchange.

The 2008 comprehensive report, called “Achieving the Potential: The Future of Federal e-Rulemaking,” called for a number of reforms, including making the site more user-friendly. One of its co-authors, Cornell University law professor Cynthia Farina, said most regulations require a graduate school reading level. Proposed regulations are typically written in dense language that makes it difficult for ordinary Americans to determine if the government plan will affect their lives, she said.

To help consumers, Farina recently started a website called regulationroom.org, which translates notable regulations into plain English and solicits feedback. She has initially partnered with the Department of Transportation to feature its proposed rules, and the site includes basic summaries and easy ways to give feedback.

Farina and other advocates are concerned that Regulations.gov is funded by the agencies themselves. The more an individual agency uses the site – such as providing more information to the public – the more the agency pays. This creates a “perverse incentive,” said Matt Madia, a regulatory policy analyst at the advocacy group OMB Watch.

Another official overseeing of Regulations.gov says many of the recommendations from the report have already been adopted, and more will be soon. John Moses, the director of collection strategies at EPA, says a big change coming in 2011 is a uniform numbering system, which will make it easier to use data “from agency to agency.”

Battin said he thought all of the report’s recommendations would be implemented by 2012.

EPA officials said the amount each agency contributes to Regulations.gov is capped at $1 million and that the payment system, to date, has worked well because agencies are invested in the site’s success.

ABOUT THE DATA

What: Federal government rulemaking proceedings.

Where: www.Regulations.gov

Availability: Online

Usability: Regulations.gov is the central website for federal agencies to post new rules and receive feedback, but critics say it needs to be improved to truly engage the public.

The Data Mine is a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation.

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