EPA blasts e-rulemaking audit

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

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Regulations.gov

Environmental Protection Agency officials questioned the timing for an audit of an e-rulemaking initiative that had been running for only a few weeks at the time of the review.

The General Accounting Office released a report this week on Regulations.gov, an EPA-managed initiative which allows agencies to electronically publish regulations and seek public comment. The Regulations.gov site, the report said, received few public comments, made navigation difficult and did not provide electronic access to supporting materials.

GAO officials conducted the audit between February and April 2003, just after Regulations.gov was launched in the last week of January.

"It's unfortunate that the timing was when it was," said the EPA's chief information officer Kim Nelson. "We didn't have time to really roll it out. When you roll out a computer system you can roll them out in phases. So it's a little odd that the timing was when it was."

The first phase was an interim system that only handled comments from regulations coming from the EPA headquarters, Nelson said. Subsequent phases would incorporate field offices.

"[The GAO] shows a number of filings or notices or regs were not available for elect comment submissions," Nelson said. "All the ones they found were in the regions, and they hadn't been a part of the rollout of the early phase of the system."

Many of the enhancements recommended by GAO had already been identified by EPA officials for later Regulations.gov installments, she said. The most effective audits are conducted one or two years — not two weeks — into a system's operation, Nelson said.

"It does a disservice of the overall goal here," Nelson said of the audit. "To question now the validity of that system only serves to undermine the progress we are making. It would be certainly doing a disservice to the citizen if the project were slowed down because someone wants to question the decisions made."

Some outside observers have wondered why the EPA was selected as the managing partner for the initiative when the agency's own E-Docket system had flaws. But an independent analysis last year of the EPA and about a half dozen other agencies showed the EPA's project was the closest to meeting Regulations.gov's requirements, Nelson said.

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