GAO sees e-rulemaking holes

GAO report: Electronic Rulemaking: Efforts to Facilitate Public Participation Can Be Improved

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Regulations.gov

Three agencies that accounted for more than half of all published rule proposals in a three-month period did not identify all the rules for comment, making public participation difficult, General Accounting Office officials said in a report released today.

Conversely, the Regulations.gov Web site, one of the e-government initiatives, identified nearly all of these rules for comment but the design sometimes complicated finding the rules, the GAO said.

"Regulations.gov allowed the public to provide electronic comments on about 91 percent of the 411 proposed rules that were published during this three-month period," the report states. "In contrast, the rulemaking agencies provided for e-comments in only about 66 percent of the rules."

Between February and April 2003, the Environmental Protection Agency, Transportation Department and Agriculture Department were responsible more than half of the 411 proposed rules published in the federal register. The EPA and DOT identified only about 20 percent of their agencies rules. The USDA did not list any of the rules, but Web sites for agencies within the department did so for most of the rules, GAO said.

For the rules that were published, some agencies, such as the EPA, did not provide any means for public comments, but Regulations.gov did, the report said. However, only two of the publications pointed to Regulations.gov, which could explain why relatively few comments were submitted through the site, the report said.

To improve the visibility of Regulations.gov, GAO officials recommended that agencies mention the site as a commenting option. The Office of Management and Budget should also issue guidance to the rulemaking agencies on ways to improve the commenting process and provide a link to Regulations.gov on their Web sites, officials said.

GAO auditors found that Regulations.gov was more consistent in allowing for public comment.

"Our study indicated that Regulations.gov more directly and more comprehensively allowed the public to identify proposed rules that were open for comment that the three major rulemaking agencies' electronic systems that we examined," the report said.

But the report noted a few problems with Regulations.gov that makes accessing the rules easier. Users must search through a dozen or more links to find a complete list of rules open for comment, the GAO said. The site also does not identify rules using the their titles as they appear in the federal register, the report said.

Regulations.gov didn't provide electronic access to supporting materials, such as an agencies' economic analyses. Officials at the EPA, which is the managing partner for the Regulations.gov, said the site was not designed for ancillary documentation, although the second module, which is expected to be ready by the end of 2005, would include that information, according to GAO officials.

In comments to the GAO report, the EPA program manager noted that Regulations.gov was intended to be an interim comment system and had only been operating for a short amount of time when it was reviewed, according to the report. USDA officials indicated to the GAO that they agreed with the report and would make changes based on the findings.

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