Administration Looks to Expand Online Access to Rules

by Matthew Madia, 12/9/2010

The Obama administration has released a best practices document aimed at improving the efficiency and usability of the federal e-rulemaking system. The best practices could lead to significant improvements for Regulations.gov – the public portal where users can find information and comment on rules.

The document emphasizes the need to provide the public with more information about the “lifecycle” of a rulemaking. That’s exactly the right focus for the E-Rulemaking Program (housed at the Environmental Protection Agency) to maintain. Too often, users’ interaction with material on Regulations.gov provides only a snapshot of a rulemaking. It can be difficult to tell where, as a user or commenter, you fit into the process.

Two major points in the document are worth highlighting. First, rules posted on Regulations.gov will include a timeline showing their development. The timeline will correspond with the rulemaking stages in the Unified Agenda – a semiannual listing of all agencies’ rulemakings – which is located on another website, RegInfo.gov. (I hope that, as part of this effort, Regulations.gov and RegInfo.gov are better integrated. RegInfo.gov also houses information on Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) reviews of agency rules.)

Second, the best practices identify certain types of documents that should be included in agency dockets. “Agencies should…[u]pload all publicly-available regulatory documents relevant to a rulemaking action on Regulations.gov, including public comments, notices of public hearings, Information Collection Requests, Environmental Impact Statements, significant guidance and regulatory impact analyses.” The instruction builds off a memo issued in May by OIRA Administrator Cass Sunstein.

This is a simple but important step that agencies need to take. Currently, “Some electronic dockets on … Regulations.gov are incomplete because they do not match their paper-based dockets,” leading to public confusion, the document rightly points out.

Turning these best practices into reality will be more of a challenge. The administration has yet to generate much fanfare on the issue of e-rulemaking or this document specifically. A sustained commitment is needed if agencies are to make public participation in rulemaking a friendlier experience.

There are signs that the administration may make e-rulemaking a higher priority in 2011. Last week, Sunstein was the keynote speaker at an event on e-rulemaking at the Brookings Institution where he put e-rulemaking in the context of President Obama’s open government efforts. OMB Watch Executive Director Gary Bass also spoke at the event. For more, visit Brookings’ website.

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