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With the first phase of a regulations Web portal up and running, officials are looking to expand the system's capabilities and bring the rest of the federal government on board with the project.

E-Rulemaking, one of the Bush administration's 24 e-government initiatives, is led by the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA is creating a central Web site so that businesses and citizens can find, review and comment on regulations electronically. Through Regulations.gov, officials have begun to build an electronic docket system to make public participation — and eventually writing regulations — easier and more efficient.

"An increased amount of public participation and understanding will lead to better decisions faster and a higher level of compliance quicker," said Rick Otis, deputy assistant administrator in the EPA's Office of Environmental Information.

The EPA was chosen to manage the creation of the electronic docket system based on its progress with Edocket, its electronic docket system. Edocket was launched in May 2002 for the agency's headquarters offices.

The governmentwide E-Rulemaking initiative passed its first major milestone with the January launch of Regulations.gov, an interim solution for posting regulations. Since then, officials have been working on the second module — a federal docket management system, based on Edocket.

General Accounting Office officials have criticized the project for lacking crucial capabilities, but they said the initiative was always seen as a temporary fix. Future phases are intended to broaden the initiative so that it will include all regulations for comment, allow for electronic dialogues, include desktop tools for the writing process and present a searchable historical record of past regulations.

"The technology can do anything," said Oscar Morales, E-Rulemaking program manager. "It's how much agreement we can get from the agencies."

Before Regulations.gov was launched, citizens interested in reviewing regulations had to comb files housed at individual agencies and mail a letter to comment or spend money for help, Morales said. "More than likely, they would be sending their $50 to their public-interest group here or their $50,000 for their lawyer," he said.

Although the first phase didn't have all the bells and whistles, it was the beginning of what Morales called the "full life cycle of rulemaking."

An independent analysis last year of the EPA and about a half-dozen other agencies showed that the EPA's project was closest to meeting Regulations.gov's requirements, officials said. One appealing feature of the agency's system is the search capability, which would allow users to find handwritten comments that are scanned into the system.

Officials want to expand the second module to include an option for an electronic dialogue on some rules, much like a chat room, Otis said. "Now you get the public resolving issues and supplying information," he said.

The third module, which is not a mandatory part of the initiative, involves back-end support for regulations writers. Much like creating personalized Web pages with Yahoo Inc.'s My Yahoo!, users will be able to create a workspace with tailored tools, form workgroups and assess comments to construct final rules.

The EPA selected Documentum Inc. for content management in the Edocket system, and the company will work to expand the system for the federal model. The agency last month selected Lockheed Martin Information Technology for overall system development support.

The electronic docket system will affect the core business processes of nearly 180 rulemaking agencies, Otis said, leading EPA officials to work closely with the other agencies in the initiative. Officials formed workgroups, often led by a non-EPA employee, for acquisition, budget, business process re-engineering, policies and module implementation.

A funding method was developed to determine how much each agency should chip in to ensure each project receives sufficient and fair funding. Even the offices for the initiative were set up outside EPA headquarters.

More than being a technology challenge, the E-Rulemaking initiative has been a lesson in cultural change, Morales said. EPA officials have made more than 50 presentations to rulemaking agencies to rally support for the project.

Rosie Whitcraft, the Department of Health and Human Services lead to the E-Rulemaking initiative, said progress on the initiative has been positive considering the number of stakeholders involved. "Bringing together all the major agencies of the federal government to come to [an agreement] on how to do something is a major undertaking," she said. "I think there will be a lot of bumps and a lot of hard decisions to be made, but because we're all working well together, I think we can come to the right decisions."

Darrell Graddy, Lockheed Martin IT's vice president of energy, environment and transportation, said one of the biggest challenges is gathering information from the agencies on the rulemaking processes. Each agency has its own process and methods of recordkeeping, presenting a cultural challenge for building the system.

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E-Rulemaking: A timeline

The E-Rulemaking initiative is being rolled out in three modules:

* January — The first module, the Regulations.gov Web portal, was launched, allowing users to find, search and comment on proposed rules.

* By fall 2005 — The second module, the federal docket management system, which is based on the Environmental Protection Agency's Edocket, will enable agency officials to post rules and regulations online. Officials expect most agencies to be linked by the end of fiscal 2005.

* Sometime after 2006 — The third module, a virtual workspace for regulations writers, is being developed at the same time as the second module. This segment does not yet have a definite launch date.

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