The White House announced a new opportunity for the public to get involved with the Open Government Initiative. In a recent blog post, U.S. Chief Technology Officer, Aneesh Chopra and Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Administrator, Cass Sunstein asked for public feedback “on ideas related to two of the key challenges – improving public services and increasing public integrity.” They posed an interesting question: “How can Regulations.gov, one of the primary mechanisms for government transparency and public participation, be made more useful to the public rulemaking process?” To better inform public feedback our team behind Regulations.gov would like to share key aspects of this Federal-wide program. We will also share an example about the efficacy of public participation in regulatory policy.
Purpose. Regulations.gov serves a dual purpose: transparency and public participation. These are two out of three core democratic values of the President’s Memorandum. Regulations.gov is the public’s primary source for information on the development of Federal regulations. However, it’s not just about access. The other purpose of Regulations.gov aims to continually improve the ability of citizens to participate in a high quality, efficient, and open rulemaking process. This means we go beyond the minimum of an online window to regulations (i.e. rules) to providing an increasing matrix of features.
Easy access to the entire rule docket folder (i.e. collection of documents relevant to the rule’s development) allows for deeper transparency than in the past. It contains Federal Register documents (e.g. rules and notices), public comments, and other documents used by decision makers. Citizens can comment on regulatory issues at all stages of the rulemaking process. Anyone can search by topic, keyword, and read or submit comments, including those submitted by other citizens.
Participation. Citizens have the ability to access not only rules, past and present, but to participate in interactive ways. For example, submitted comments are automatically sent to the appropriate agency with a tracking number. This unique number can be cited by citizens to quickly search for and locate a public comment once it has been posted to the website. In addition, members of the public register for email alerts when changes occur to a docket folder of interest. These tools equip the public to participate at a solid level of engagement. However, this is only the beginning.
In the latest version of Regulations.gov, one of the coolest features of the website is the Exchange. The Exchange is a forum for the public to provide feedback about the website and various Federal agency initiatives. Contributions to the forum are not classified as official comments in the rulemaking process. However, such conversations foster citizen-to-citizen (C2C) and government-to-citizen (G2C) communication. Over time these conversations help to refine perspectives of those actively participating. Is there room for improvement for public participation? Sure. Read on for an outline of our plans.
Plans. The team at Regulations.gov has a relentless focus to advance the purpose of the program. We’re planning new web features and a communications strategy with the end-user in mind. We align program values to public needs. It’s an inside-out approach.
From a technical perspective, to increase the level and quality of public participation our team plans to incorporate comment-on-a-comment features, enhance search capabilities, and streamline navigation. The public can see the program’s strategic goals and best practices for a glimpse into the future of the current website. One of these goals is to help agencies better manage their electronic dockets. Last year our team released a best practices document entitled, “Improving Electronic Dockets on Regulations.gov.” Moreover, we strive to provide all content in Plain Language and encourage agencies to do the same. Mobile integration is also on our radar.
From a communications perspective, we recently started the first steps with social media as a gateway for giving citizens a voice in regulatory decisions and, in a matter of weeks, soon as a familiar forum with Facebook. Indeed, strategic plans are being developed here for a More Social Open Government. As a first step, here’s our Twitter page. We also plan to raise awareness of the regulatory process. We’re rethinking not only web usability and access, but also the core value proposition of public participation. Some might ask, “Why would I get involved when the impact of my comments remains a mystery?” Part of our strategy moving forward involves identifying case studies and data surrounding this impact—a missing link in government communications.
In the words of some, we are taking a citizen-focused approach. Other value propositions ground our strategy; however, the core value of citizen impact often remains overlooked. This is how transparency and public participation intersect. A report by Pew Internet and American Life confirms this inextricable link, concluding “Those who believe they can impact their community are more likely to be engaged.” By illustrating the effectiveness of public comment we raise public confidence. The voice of the people matters. This is fundamental to fortifying public trust.
Specifically, we plan to raise the public’s awareness of the increasing variety of ways citizens can interact with the U.S. Federal decision making process. This includes increasing the number of spotlights on public participation efficacy. It’s also about taking openness to next level. We will showcase the impact of public comment on regulatory outcomes. Already, we are finding interesting examples.
Case Study. As a case in point, let’s look at the protective regulations for killer whales. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) received thousands of oral and written comments regarding regulations that protect killer whales from marine vessels under the Endangered Species Act. The details of the rule and the various comments can be accessed online in the docket folder at Regulations.gov. Rule writers grouped comments and responded with reasoned, thoughtful explanations (see final rule). After responding to 18 different types of comments, the they acknowledged the inherent efficacy of public participation:
“Public comments on the no-go zone raised several suggested alternatives that we had not fully analyzed in the draft EA [Environmental Assessment]. In addition, we recognize that to be effective, regulations must be understood by the public and have a degree of public acceptance. Because of the many alternatives suggested by the public, and because of the degree of public opposition, we have decided to gather additional information and conduct further analysis and public outreach on the concept of a no-go zone. Therefore, the final rule does not adopt a no-go zone” (italics mine).
Clearly, as we can see in this testimonial and in other final rules, public participation makes a difference in the quality of regulatory policy. Agencies take input from its citizens seriously. In this spirit, our team always looks forward to hearing from the public as we further advance this exciting Federal program. We encourage everyone in the GovLoop community to visit the website. Discover for yourself the difference you can make.