New e-rulemaking site facilitates participation

Cynthia Farina would be the first to acknowledge that it is difficult to get members of the public engaged in a meaningful way in federal rulemaking. The topics are complex and technical, and people generally have limited time to review and analyze them.

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As a law professor at Cornell University and a principal researcher for the Cornell e-Rulemaking Initiative, Farina leads the Regulation Room e-rulemaking project being conducted online in cooperation with the Transportation Department.

One of the lessons she has learned is that using cool new technologies is not enough to draw people to visit a website and comment on proposed rules they might have a stake in, she said. Initiatives must also be designed to target specific audiences affected by the rules, she added.

In Regulation Room, proposed rules are chosen carefully for discussion. The focus is on selecting proposals that could have a major effect on stakeholders who are not likely to be aware of the proposals and not likely to comment on them on their own, Farina said.

The project has generated discussions on five proposals to date. By far the most popular was a debate on DOT’s upcoming regulations on airline passengers’ rights, including whether peanuts should no longer be served on airplanes out of consideration for people with peanut allergies. That rulemaking discussion generated more than 24,000 visits to the website.

Traffic on Regulation Room has varied from the thousands who participated in the air passenger rights discussion to the few hundred who weighed in on a proposal to require truckers to carry onboard recorders.

The latest discussion focuses on an advance notice of a DOT proposal to require that air travel websites and kiosks be accessible to people with disabilities.

Here are some other lessons Farina has learned.

  • Make outreach an essential part of your plan. Setting up a website for public discussion is just the beginning. Outreach has been crucial for making stakeholders aware of Regulation Room and motivating them to visit and participate, Farina said. Her group uses social networks, blogs and other tools to get the message out. Team members visit blogs and Facebook pages where discussions are being held on related topics and post comments directing people to Regulation Room to view the latest proposed rule.
  • Help people analyze the proposals. Most people do not have the time to read a 60-page notice of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register. E-rulemaking projects should provide help in analyzing the proposed rule, such as outlining key points, explaining difficult details and pointing to areas where the proposal might affect stakeholders. “If you want participants to be informed, you have to provide the information,” Farina said.
  • Provide guidance for making effective comments. Regulation Room has moderators who can answer questions and clarify information. If visitors come to Regulation Room angry about a proposal but unsure of all the issues involved, they might also receive assistance in moving beyond their anger to address the pertinent issues, Farina said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Thu, Nov 10, 2011 Barry Virginia

State governments have been experimenting with e-rulemaking for a number of years, with a range of results suggesting that the current fascination with e-rulemaking at the federal level should proceed with extreme caution. The assumption that involving more people in the rulemaking process is an undiluted good is fallacious. Opening the rulemaking process to a wide audience can create a storm of comments, many incoherent or off mark, including often thousands organized by special interest groups and disguised to be difficult to recognize. If the rulemaker has committed itself to evaluating all comments (as some states did), the task can be insurmountable, creating serious delay. I would suggest that the feds, and their academic correspondents, contact the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS), arrange a collaboration with the states who have led those efforts, and think clearly about the advice they will receive. Such a collboration(the Interagency Regulation Working Group) was initiated (facilitiated by my firm)among NASS, Office of Federal Register and GPO several years ago, but interest in sharing had not yet matured. Now is the time to revisit that effort.

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