EPA questions GAO’s E-Rulemaking audit

Environmental Protection Agency officials are questioning the timing of a recent General Accounting Office report criticizing the rollout and progress of the E-Rulemaking project, which EPA leads.

“I’ve never seen an audit like this in the first two weeks to two months of a site rollout,” said Kim Nelson, EPA’s CIO. “This would be more appropriate in one or two years from now, because systems roll out over a period of time.”

In the report, Electronic Rulemaking—Efforts to Facilitate Public Participation Can Be Improved, auditors said Regulations.gov did a better job than most agency docket systems in letting citizens find rules, but lacked the complete functionality that would attract more users to the site.

GAO auditors compared the Regulations.gov site with three other electronic docket portals in use by EPA, and by the Agriculture and Transportation departments. Auditors evaluated how the portals identified rules open for public comment, the ability to let citizens comment electronically and the ability to include historical or informational documents that would help explain the proposed rule or let commenters see others feedback.

“Regulations.gov is a good system,” said Curtis Copeland, GAO’s assistant director for strategic issues. “It does a better job in identifying the rules and giving the public an option to comment on them, but no one is using it. Even now, we spoke to agencies three weeks ago, and still no one is using it.”

EPA officials do not deny that the portal is not receiving a lot of comments. It has gotten about 1,000 since January, when EPA launched the system, said Oscar Morales, the E-Rulemaking project manager. But Morales said there has been little marketing of the site, and agencies are slow to start using it.

“We heard from experts that this is a typical scenario for this type of a government Web site,” Morales said. “An analogous situation is when the IRS put out the electronic submission forms. They didn’t have many takers the first year, but now there are a lot of takers. They grew slowly from a pilot of 25,000 in 1986 to 52 million in 2002.”

Morales added the site has received about 1 million hits since January and averages about 6,000 visits per day.

To increase the number of users to the site, the Office of the Federal Register developed a revised template for agencies to use when publishing rules. It includes a specific citation to use Regulations.gov, Nelson said.

EPA also plans to address other issues GAO pointed out when it updates the site next September and merges existing agency e-docket systems with Regulations.gov, Morales said.

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