GSA redesigns fed regulation tracking system

By replacing an old mainframe database system with a new World Wide Web-enabled system, the General Services Administration is making it easier for federal agencies to submit, manage and update their regulatory information.

The Office of Management and Budget requires all agencies to publish in the Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions and the Regulatory Plan—which appear in the Federal Register twice a year and once a year, respectively—every regulation they plan, propose or pass. All of this information is gathered in a database maintained by the General Services Administration's Regulatory Information Service Center (RISC) and can be searched online by the public or OMB.

The system GSA designed for collecting and storing the information in 1983 has not been updated until now, and the Model 204 mainframe database software the center used has long since been replaced. The database itself was stored in a high-security building that required agencies to go through many security hoops to submit or update their data either electronically or by hard copy.

"That all made it cumbersome for the people at the agencies to enter the data," said Ronald Kelly, executive director of RISC. "Since the late 1980s we've been trying to work out a plan to redesign the system."A combination of funding, personnel and timing issues held off that redesign until last year, when the center met with agencies to ask them what kinds of changes they would like to see and then contracted with Seta Corp. to make the changes.

The system is now based on Oracle Corp.'s Oracle8i Web-enabled database. The redesign will bring the system back on level with current technology, which is an important step because it will make a lot of little improvements that could result in a major improvement, said Bob Hinchman, senior counsel for the Office of Policy Development at the Justice Department.

One improvement is in simple ease of use, he said. The commands on the old system "were highly nonintuitive," and any unfamiliarity could lead to mistakes like accidentally knocking yourself entirely out of the system in mid-transaction, Hinchman said.

Agencies will be able to access the system over the Internet, and RISC also made sure there would be enough security so that each agency could view its data without worrying about it being accessed by anyone else. All of this should add up to a much better process, Kelly said. "They will hopefully have to apply a lot less time and effort into entering and updating their data," he said.

Agencies also will be able to get instant feedback if they have entered the data incorrectly. OMB has a specific format and terminology for all of the entries, and agencies often make mistakes when they input data. The center generated reports for each agency detailing discrepancies so they could be fixed before the final printed version was released.

"We could do it in a day if everything went right, but it could take several," Kelly said. Using the new Web-enabled database, agencies can generate these reports themselves from their own systems whenever they want.

"Under the new system, I can update and enter and immediately generate a report on my PC, which saves an enormous amount of time, especially if you make a mistake," Hinchman said.

The center has several other features to add to the system eventually, including enabling agencies to use the center's database as their own regulation management tool and making the Unified Agenda and the Regulatory Plan reflect real-time changes made by agencies, Kelly said.

Two and a half years ago, recognizing the shortcomings of the old system, RISC gave agencies the option of creating their own systems. The Transportation Department and the Environmental Protection Agency took GSA up on this offer, but DOT is now moving back to the GSA system, said Jeanne Kowalski, senior research analyst at the Office of the Secretary of Transportation.

DOT did not tie its system into many others within the agency—unlike the EPA, which made its system the basis for several others—so it will not be hard to move back to GSA's system, Kowalski said.

The new functionality added by RISC, including being able to edit and spell-check entries as they are being submitted, are a big part of DOT's decision. "They have done a great job, and I think they looked at a lot of the systems that have been developed in that two-year window," Kowalski said.

The agency also will get consistent training from RISC across DOT offices, access to any improvements made and the support of a governmentwide system. DOT also will be able to eliminate the help desk that it established to maintain the internal database and much of the double-entry required by reporting to two systems.

"We just see so many advantages to going back to this governmentwide system," Kowalski said.


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