Online and involved

The EPA uses a World Wide Web forum to help it steer public involvement policy

The topic couldn't have been more fitting. To generate stakeholder discussion about the Environmental Protection Agency's draft public involvement policy, which will guide how agency officials engage the public in regulatory and program decisions, the EPA held an innovative, 10-day online forum last month. The result was increased public involvement in formulating the public involvement policy.

The forum — the second "national dialogue" the EPA has hosted in partnership with Information Renaissance, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization — gave interested members of the public an opportunity to learn about, debate and offer suggestions to the draft policy, which was released in December. A final public information policy, which will be updated for the first time since 1981, is due early next year.

The dialogue was essentially a World Wide Web message board open for 10 days. A different EPA office hosted the forum each day and focused on a particular aspect of the proposed policy, such as permits and rules, local issues or the Superfund program. Although EPA hosts and expert panelists contributed daily, the focus was on the public participants.

"We know what we think works. But what do the people who participate think?" said Pat Bonner, customer service director for the EPA's Customer Service Program. "We heard an awful lot about what goes right and what goes wrong."

The comments, criticism and suggestions aired during the discussion will remain available on the Internet for agency officials and the public to view for some time.

"One message builds on another, on another, on another," Bonner said. "It can be a gold mine of ideas for people to go back to." The archive can also be used as a resource for contacts involved in or interested in environmental policy, she said.

The discussion will help EPA officials develop an implementation plan for the policy, Bonner said. That plan will be released for public comment in the fall.

The discussion also helped spike official comments on the draft policy; its public comment period ended July 31. Though the forum posts couldn't be used as formal public comments, the forum included a link telling visitors how to accomplish that, Bonner said.

Two important features of every forum that Information Renaissance has run — a total of seven — are the "briefing book" and daily summaries, said Bob Carlitz, executive director of the organization. The briefing book provides relevant background material — in this case, an online EPA dictionary, a link to the text of the draft policy in question and others, reports, research and more.

The book is "a way of soliciting input from the public and a way of providing outreach and education," Carlitz said.

The daily summaries, posted by 4 a.m. the next day, represent the main points of a day's discussion. "There's a lot of volume, and it's unlikely people are going to read all the messages," Carlitz said. "It's good to have some way of getting an overview of what's going on."

To spread the word about the forum, the EPA and Information Renaissance "blanketed" environmental communities with messages on mailing lists, advertisements in environmental publications and other outreach activities, said Laurie Maak, special projects coordinator for Information Renaissance. "We looked at every group we could find," she said, including environmental justice organizations, cities and counties.

The goal was to have 500 registrants, Carlitz said, but more than 1,200 participants registered. About 25 percent to 30 percent of those registrants posted messages, a "fairly respectable" number for online forums, he said. About 1,000 messages were posted over the 10-day period.

Information Renaissance officials say discussions such as this one could strengthen government rulemaking by including a wider variety of public participants.

"It's an amazing opportunity for government to open themselves up and learn more of what the public cares about and doesn't understand," Maak said. "It's an opportunity for the powers that be to learn a lot about themselves and then better hone the information they send out."


Varied conversations

Information Renaissance, which promotes the use of technology to support

civic activities, has provided seven online discussions. In addition to

the Environmental Protection Agency forum on public involvement, the organization

has facilitated discussions on issues that include:

* Social Security reform.

* E-Rate telecommunications services for schools and libraries.

* Money's role in politics.

* Libraries' role in providing environmental information.


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