Transparency

New tool helps users explore federal rulemaking

holographic bar graph

Docket Wrench turns rulemaking data into visual representations, with the ability to drill down for more granular detail. (Stock image)

A new open-source data visualization tool allows users to track how companies, special interest groups, nongovernmental organizations and individuals attempt to influence federal rules and policies.

The Sunlight Foundation's Docket Wrench is a searchable database that monitors public comments from 10,000 organizations across 300 federal agencies by sifting through more than 3.5 million regulatory documents available on Regulations.gov.

Users can enter a keyword of interest -- such as "firearm" or "NRA," two currently trending terms -- to see where it appears in the more than 3 terabytes of public comments, rules and federal dockets.

The tool goes beyond regurgitating the information already available by allowing users to see who is commenting and by providing a visualized comparison of textually similar documents related to a specific rule, which could indicate a large-scale form-letter campaign by lobbyists or interest groups.

"It is important to the public because while this is not lobbying per se, this is how a lot of corporations and interest groups affect the next step of policy-making after a bill is passed and signed into law," said Liz Bartolomeo, media director at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit government watchdog group.

The organization's internal development department, Sunlight Labs, built the visualization tool over the past year. It uses the application programming interface provided by Regulations.gov, which is updated daily. During its development, Sunlight Foundation used Docket Wrench to highlight how organizations like the NRA influence rulemaking, Bartolomeo said.

"We can see where spikes are in public commenting and then delve into them," she added.

The tool also helps users see which agencies people are targeting.

chart from docket wrench

A sample chart from Docket Wrench showing rulemaking in progress.

The Environmental Protection Agency leads the way with more than 450,000 public comments, followed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, each with more than 160,000 comments.

On the other side of the coin, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, the National Communications System, the Department of the Air Force, the Information Security Oversight Office, and the Appraisal Subcommittee had two or fewer public comments.

"Influence doesn't stop at K Street," said Tom Lee, Sunlight Labs director. "Every day, corporations, interest groups and advocates submit thousands of comments to proposed regulations posted by the U.S. government. While some public affairs activities, like lobbying and campaign contributions, are extensively researched, influence on the regulatory process has, until now, gone largely unexplored."

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