E-Rules, Version 2.0

The federal rulemaking process will become much more interactive when a revamped Regulations.gov Web site debuts next January, federal officials said last week.

A set of new features, collectively dubbed the Federal Docket Management System, will be released in six phases starting next year and will replace the current simple rules retrieval and comment system found at www.regulations.gov.

The site was set up in 2003 as a one-stop open rules search, retrieval and comment tool as part of E-Rulemaking, one of 24

e-government initiatives.

Soon, people visiting that URL will have access to supporting materials and other public comments. They also will be able to sign up for e-mail notification when rule dockets are modified and make use of a more sophisticated search engine.

Additionally, public comments will no longer be limited to 4,000 characters, said Rick Otis, a deputy assistant administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, during an Aug. 12 forum on the initiative. The EPA is the lead agency for the effort, which is included in the E-Government Act of 2002. The law requires all federal agencies to have an online docket system.

The existing Web site was done "pretty cheaply, pretty quickly," and was "never intended to be a full-blown application," said Oscar Morales, director of E-Rulemaking. The first version of the expanded regulations site will not have "lots of additional bells and whistles," but every couple of months, a new version will be uploaded, he said.

Agency participation is a work in progress, as well. Any agency with an open rule, "whether [officials] know it or not," can already receive comments via Regulations.gov, Otis said, but the task of setting up a governmentwide electronic docket system is more involved. For example, "differing agencies have different mandatory fields for comment submission," he said.

The overhauled site will also replace existing Internet docket systems that administrators have created at agencies such as the EPA, the Transportation Department and the Small Business Administration. But before individual Web sites are shut down, the governmentwide system cannot cause them to lose any functional capability that they currently have, Otis said.

Usability tests will start this fall, although budget cuts by congressional appropriators have "had an effect on the size of the amount of funds available to us," Otis said. The House appropriations bill for the Interior Department includes language that blocks funds for four e-government initiatives, including E-Rulemaking.

"We're barely in the position to produce what we're producing," Otis said. Morales characterized the effort as "a critical innovation for a little-known process outside Washington," D.C.

The project's goal is to place online "everything that, in [the] EPA's case, would have been in a file cabinet in the basement of a building in Waterside," Otis said, referring to the EPA's building in Washington, D.C. And the EPA's basement hasn't been the safest place, he added.

Capabilities that the new site makes available could even reduce some of the conflict associated with federal rulemaking, Otis said. Disagreements won't disappear, but posting comments on proposed regulations in near-real time could facilitate a new level of discussion, he said.

But that is only if Regulations.gov does not degenerate into flame wars, said John Horrigan, a senior research specialist at the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

E-mail lists have a long history of becoming less useful over time, he said. "They tend to become dominated by a few users," and the rhetoric can get ugly, he added.

The regulations site will quarantine user comments for 24 hours as a quality control and virus check, according to officials at the EPA and Lockheed Martin Corp., which, along with BearingPoint Inc., serves as the systems integrator for the project.

But where the government draws the line between legitimate comments and unsuitable posts is something that should evolve over time, rather than trying to set out those guidelines before the fact, Horrigan said.

"Some lines are pretty clear, pornography and so forth," he said. "But it's probably [best to] draw the boundaries liberally initially to see how users respond to the system."

About the Author

David Perera is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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