Regulations.gov gets a facelift, but it might not be enough
The White House debuted the redesigned Regulations.gov rulemaking website this week, but the site improvements might be just a first step toward boosting public participation in e-rulemaking, based on the findings of a recent federal advisory report.
The Administrative Conference of the United States, a federal advisory board, issued the report in December recommending that federal agencies need to work harder to link their websites more effectively to Regulations.gov and to take other steps to get more people involved in the process of commenting online on pending rules.
The board reported that while some of the agencies are doing innovative things with e-rulemaking, the majority need to do more to ensure that the public is aware of the information available and can easily find it and submit a comment.
E-rulemaking gets a fresh push
That is not always the case. As it stands now, federal agency websites “do not always include features to ensure that essential information, particularly about rulemaking, is broadly accessible to the public,” the board said in its Dec. 9 report.
Furthermore, agency links to Regulations.gov and to archived rulemaking materials, as well as policies about commenting, often are hard to find, the advisory board said.
Historically, it has been difficult to engage the public in rulemaking, which often deals with complex subjects like energy production, telecommunications, transportation and health care.
While Regulations.gov has been in existence since 2003, participation has involved mostly industry members. The Transportation Department is one of the agencies trying out new online tools on their own websites to stimulate broader discussion on regulation.
While many federal agency websites have been redesigned in recent years to focus on the most popular “top tasks,” that trend actually has worked against e-rulemaking by making the material harder to find on websites, the advisory board said.
“Rulemaking may never be a ‘top task’ in terms of the numbers of Web users, but in a democracy, few tasks compare in significance with the ability of government agencies to create binding law backed up with the threat of civil, and even criminal, penalties,” the advisory group said in its report.
The advisory board recommended that federal agency websites clearly link to e-rulemaking resources, including Regulations.gov.
The redesigned Regulations.gov website now includes more instructions and tips to navigate the site and a prominent “search” box. There also is a new Facebook page for Regulations.gov, which was liked by 335 people as of Feb. 22.
Regulations.gov now also offers resources to developers for accessing regulatory materials through Application Programming Interfaces, which are standardized forms of delivering data.
“For most of us, the addition of “APIs” on Regulations.gov doesn’t mean much, but for web managers and experts in the applications community, providing APIs will fundamentally change the way people will be able to interact with public federal regulatory data and content,” Cass Sunstein, administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, wrote in a White House blog post on Feb. 21.