Citizen Engagement

Are citizens' voices heard in rulemaking?

megaphone image

Agencies often ignore the public's voice in rulemaking, GAO finds. (Stock image)

The government might be great at creating rules, but it is less skilled at getting feedback on them, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Public comments are typically part of the rulemaking process and aim to increase transparency. Agencies publish an average of 3,000 to 4,000 final regulations each year, but a large percentage of them do not involve public feedback.

From 2003 to 2010, agencies published 568 major rules — those that could have an annual economic impact of $100 million or more — and about 30,000 non-major rules, which have less of an economic impact and may involve routine administrative issues.

According to a newly released GAO report, 35 percent of the former and 44 percent of the latter did not include a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to alert the public to the opportunity for comment.

In addition, agencies commonly neglected to respond to public comments, often citing the “good cause” and other statutory exceptions for publishing final rules without an NPRM. “Good cause” is typically used when agencies deem notice-and-comment procedures “impracticable, unnecessary or contrary to the public interest.” That exception was claimed in 77 percent of major rules and 61 percent of nonmajor rules published without an NPRM.

Sometimes, the rules are fairly trivial so agencies do not necessarily need much input, said Daniel Schuman, policy counsel at the Sunlight Foundation.

“It’s not necessary that they always do so, but generally speaking, it’s usually useful,” he added, supporting GAO’s conclusion that failing to respond to feedback is a missed opportunity for agencies. When agencies did respond to public comments, they often made changes to improve the rules, the GAO report states.

How people interact with or provide feedback to the government is still stuck in a 1950s model that fails to consider today’s technologies and the public’s needs, Schuman said. He added that fixing the process requires more work.

“There’s so much more that needs to be done — just the phrase ‘federal regulatory’ make people’s eyes glaze over, or they start pulling out their hair and moaning, and that’s not good,” he said.

GAO recommended that the Office of Management and Budget issue guidance to encourage agencies to respond to comments on final major rules, but OMB disagreed that such a framework would offer substantial benefits. Schuman called OMB’s reaction unfortunate for a few reasons, including the fact that helpful comments deserve attention.

“When you file a comment and [it’s] six months or a year later when the regulation comes out, it’s not clear they’re responding to what you said,” he said. “While [a certain reference] might address your point, you don’t have any way of making that connection. It’s like ships passing in the night, and there isn’t any way of saying, ‘You asked a question and here’s the answer’ like normal people would.”

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

The Fed 100

Save the date for 28th annual Federal 100 Awards Gala.

Featured

  • computer network

    How Einstein changes the way government does business

    The Department of Commerce is revising its confidentiality agreement for statistical data survey respondents to reflect the fact that the Department of Homeland Security could see some of that data if it is captured by the Einstein system.

  • Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Army photo by Monica King. Jan. 26, 2017.

    Mattis mulls consolidation in IT, cyber

    In a Feb. 17 memo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told senior leadership to establish teams to look for duplication across the armed services in business operations, including in IT and cybersecurity.

  • Image from Shutterstock.com

    DHS vague on rules for election aid, say states

    State election officials had more questions than answers after a Department of Homeland Security presentation on the designation of election systems as critical U.S. infrastructure.

  • Org Chart Stock Art - Shutterstock

    How the hiring freeze targets millennials

    The government desperately needs younger talent to replace an aging workforce, and experts say that a freeze on hiring doesn't help.

  • Shutterstock image: healthcare digital interface.

    VA moves ahead with homegrown scheduling IT

    The Department of Veterans Affairs will test an internally developed scheduling module at primary care sites nationwide to see if it's ready to service the entire agency.

  • Shutterstock images (honglouwawa & 0beron): Bitcoin image overlay replaced with a dollar sign on a hardware circuit.

    MGT Act poised for a comeback

    After missing in the last Congress, drafters of a bill to encourage cloud adoption are looking for a new plan.

Reader comments

Mon, Jan 28, 2013

This whole "transparency in govt" and getting feedback before signing, was all campaign promises anyway. Who believes those? They rarely come true and certainly have not yet in this area.

Mon, Jan 28, 2013

Actually, most comments are forwared by lobbiests trying to protect special interests, not the public concerned about a rules impact.

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group