Advice About Tools for Running a Web-Based Administrative Rules Public Comment Period?

I’m a policy advisor at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, in the final stages of writing a set of administrative rules (regulating composting facilities,) with a public comment period set to begin March 1. The rules have a number of unique, new governance features, and I would really like to have the broadest possible public distribution, comments, and conversation about the proposed rules. From all of the discussions here and elsewhere about the power of web-based government, this seems like a natural fit. I understand the theory, but I have almost no practical experience with web tools (fair disclosure, I’m a lawyer, not a scientist or a technology expert.) I would greatly appreciate any ideas you may have that would help me understand the tool or suite of tools to use to accomplish this most effectively, and what it would take to put them into practice. I look at this as a pilot, certainly for my agency, perhaps others, and I am willing to live with some uncertainty to see if this is possible and useful.

I am looking for a platform that will allow me to post the rules and supporting documents (yes, a big pile of paper) and allow broad public access to read the documents, comment on whatever people are interested in, and engage other commentors in discussions. I may join these conversations if it seems useful, or allow them to take their own course. I don’t think I especially want collaborative editing: I can always wordsmith the rules later. What I am more interested in is having commentors explain their ideas and concerns, and having those comments easily available for everyone so others can engage those ideas. A crucial component of this must be the ability to segregate discussion topics so commentors can follow the thread that interests them, and so I can keep track of the – hopefully- many different topics and threads. Some kind of a list of topics, with connecting threads, woudl seem to be ideal. And finally, I need the ability to capture this in some form – maybe download to cd or dvd? – for public records purposes.

Is the right tool for this a wiki? blog? bulletin board? some combination, or perhaps something I don’t know about? As you can see, I have a pretty good sense of what I want this tool to do; unfortunately, I have no real idea what it might actually be.

Oh, and if possible (I’m pretty sure in this world you only get what you ask for) I would also like to offer a web-based tool that would live on after the rulemaking has been completed. This would be a repository of final rulemaking documents, but more importantly would be a place where composting operators, DEQ, and others, could post information, work on problems, share ideas, create compliance strategies, etc. Perhaps this would be the same web tool used for the rulemaking, perhaps something different that would begin after the rules have been finally adopted (assuming I live so long!)

My friend Peat, always handy with a metaphor, tells me to think of govloop as a very efficient way to put leaflets on all the cars in a parking lot, the difference being this is a group of very smart folks with a wealth of knowledge,
who may read this rather than turning on their wipers.

Thank you in advance for any suggestions you may have, and if you have conducted a public comment period using interactive web tools, I would really like to talk with you. You can also contact me at [email protected].

Charlie Landman

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Molly Moran

Hi Charlie,

Sounds like a fun project. A wiki would be the way for collaborative editing, but since you are looking to capture comments, I would suggest using a blog. At the State Department, we use Movable Type software to power our (internal) blog-based collaboration sites.
I know that the brilliant folks at the National Academy of Public Administration (Frank DiGiammarino, Lena Trudeau, and Dan Munz) ran a similar, and successful, project a few months ago. They worked with OMB to create a site called “National Dialogue” that asked for citizen input on the question: “How should we expand the use of information technology and protect personal privacy to improve health care?” I know they got good feedback and had no issues with inappropriate comments.

When people want to set up a blog site here at State in order to communicate and collaborate with colleagues, we ask them to fill out a questionnaire. While all the questions might not pertain to your project, I would encourage you to take a look at the questionnaire to help you to think about the different angles of managing this social dialog. Of course, as government, you will have to consider records-keeping (as long as you back up the server, you should be fine), privacy information (are you allowed to use persistent cookies? if not, disable them from within the software you choose), and accessibility (visual or hearing-impaired persons should be able to use your site). Also, be sure to post clear terms about how you expect people to behave on the site, and how you expect to monitor the comments. DipNote, State’s blog to/with the public, has an example you might start with (see especially “Blog Comment Policy”).

Jeffrey Levy

Hi there. Sorry for the delay in responding to your request on my wall; I need to remember to check it more often. 🙂

I’m glad Molly mentioned NAPA’s National Dialogue, because that’s our starting point for our upcoming rule blog. In fact, we’re working with NAPA to modify that tool for our use in this project.

Molly gives great advice above. Here are a few more things we at EPA have to figure out as a federal agency about to try something similar. I don’t know your state’s legal environment, though.
– Time to moderate comments. Molly linked to State’s blog comment policy. Ours is pretty much the same, so it’s not hard to come up with a policy. But then you need to decide whether you’re going to allow comments to show up automatically and only remove problematic ones, or approve them before they appear publicly. And will you only do that review during business hours? If so, be prepared for someone to complain if inappropriate comments appear overnight. Again, not a major problem, but be prepared in advance. In over 5400 comments so far on our blog, maybe 5-10 were really a problem.

– What’s a comment? We’re legally required to respond to every distinct comment we get. If we consider every blog comment a regulatory comment, though, we quickly run into trouble. What if someone changes his/her mind after an online discussion? Which comment do we consider more? There’s also a staff time issue with this; a long discussion of, say, 20 comments, might produce a single “real” comment, but our staff would have to read and consider all 20. And although we can normally remove blog comments that violate our comment policy, if we define everything as a regulatory comment, then we have to capture spam, off-topic posts, duplicate posts, and everything else. Our solution will be to not consider blog comments as formal comments on the rule; instead, we’re going to provide an easy mechanism to file a formal comment whenever you like. Thus, the blog does what you discuss: provide a place for people to discuss and debate prior to filing a formal comment on the rule.

– Terms of service. If you choose a publicly-available service, carefully read the terms of service. They probably require your agency to indemnify (and possibly defend) them, and the choice of law is probably the state of CA and their courts. As federal agencies, we can’t accept those terms, and I suspect neither can you. Our solution is to work with many sites to develop special gov’t-only terms, but we haven’t completed any yet.

I don’t want to scare you off; these issues are all solvable. But it’s better to think of them up front.

Good luck with your project, and feel free to send me any more questions!

Elizabeth Rosas

@Molly, the link to your questionaire is broken… can you update? I am looking to develop something similar, any examples would help! Thanks 🙂