Obama Administration Accepting Ideas for Regulations.gov

The Obama administration has launched a website to prompt a discussion of the federal government’s online portal for viewing and commenting on agency regulations – Regulations.gov. The new website, Regulations.gov/exchange, includes ideas for improving Regulations.gov and allows users to comment on the ideas.

Regulations.gov has the potential to be a most valuable tool for the public to participate in government decision making. Users can search for, read, and comment on the regulations federal agencies propose every day, and they can do it all from their computer. Gone are the days where concerned citizens must examine a paper edition of the Federal Register and sending comments by snail mail.

Utilizing the internet to promote public participation makes perfect sense, but Regulations.gov has yet to live up to its potential. The website is difficult to use, especially for the uninitiated.

Searches on the website comb through every rulemaking document in the federal government’s database. While users can refine searches, they cannot search within a specific docket – that is, the collection of supporting documents and public comments related to a regulation, along with the regulation itself.

Another problem is that agencies do not share common ways of classifying or naming documents. For example, while the title of a public comment on an Environmental Protection Agency rule will bear the name of the commenter, the Department of the Interior titles all comments “Comment on docket x” or “Public comment.” That’s not exactly helpful, and since users can’t search the docket, finding a comment from a specific person or organization is like finding a needle in a haystack.

If you’ve experienced frustrations using Regulations.gov, head over to the new website and let the Obama administration know what you think. We’re hoping that the administration will undertake a real reform effort to transform the website into a participation tool that’s easy for the public to use.

For more on the problems with Regulations.gov and ideas for reform, read the American Bar Association’s report on e-rulemaking, available at ceri.law.cornell.edu/erm-comm.php.

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