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Regulations.gov wins praise for public outreach

The federal government is drawing accolades for its strategy to allow the public to evaluate a proposed redesign of the often overlooked rule-tracking Web site Regulations.gov.

The site, which launched in 2003, was intended to engage the public in policymaking by allowing citizens to submit comments on proposed rules published in the Federal Register. But many users find the site confusing. So, Regulations.gov on May 21 debuted a video of a proposed upgrade aimed at simplifying navigation and making interaction easier, and has taken the extra step of allowing the public to post online reviews of the new features for the next two months.

"That Regulations.gov Web site has been up and running for a very long time and has been very much below the radar for a very long time," said Scott Burns, chief executive officer and co-founder of GovDelivery, a company that manages public communications for government agencies. Regulations.gov currently is not a customer.

Many citizens do not understand how the rule-making process works, or the significance of regulations, choosing instead to visit government sites showcasing more tangible subject matter, such as Recovery.gov, observers noted.

"Recovery.gov is sort of the face for how we spend $800 billion" over several years, said Jerry Brito, a senior research fellow who specializes in government transparency at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, referring to the official government site for tracking the stimulus funds. "Take the cost of regulations on society -- it's way more than $800 billion every year," he said. A 2005 Small Business Administration study estimated that the annual cost of compliance with federal regulations totals $1.1 trillion.

Regulations.gov wisely chose to present users with some concrete upgrades as a starting point, rather than host a free-form discussion on general improvements, Burns said.

"They're doing it the right way. Design-by-democracy doesn't work nearly as well as giving people one or two or three straw men that they can react to. Imagine if you went out to users and said, 'Tell us how you want your portable music player to work,' " he said.

The government's suggested enhancements include updated lists of the most viewed regulations, those that will be finalized soon and newly posted ones, as well as sophisticated search filters and a wizard, or virtual tour, that walks users through steps to find regulations.

Burns also praised the moderators of the ongoing discussion.

"You can tell the Regulations.gov people are reading the site and taking feedback right away," instead of waiting until the deadline, Burns said.

For example, one commenter wrote, "It is easier to affect a rule-making before several years of rule-writing agency organizational inertia [have] developed behind a particular proposal -- rather than trying to head a rule-making in a new direction with some post-proposal comments. . . .The Regulations.gov portal should make everyone aware of all of their opportunities to participate in the process, not just direct people to the 'back of the rule-making bus' -- the latter, post-proposal part or the rule-making process."

To which the moderator responded, "We at eRulemaking would like to incorporate an educational component on the site so the public can learn not only what the federal regulatory process is, but also why it is important to participate."

Brito agreed the initiative is "a great step forward," but said the site needs a systemic overhaul in addition to the cosmetic changes proposed.

"There are enough problems right now with the site [with] the way it's laid out" that can be fixed "just by changing some tools. But that's just marginal," said Brito, who after growing frustrated with the current site created an alternative, called OpenRegs.com. Brito said his site strives to be more user-friendly than the government's online clearinghouse.

He noted that the Federal Document Management System, the tool that agencies use to transmit content to Regulations.gov, encourages agencies to file information into a hodgepodge of categories, which hinders meaningful searches. Brito pointed to a 2008 report to Congress and the president on the trouble with federal electronic rule-making that found a lack of "adequate data standardization" was a central problem with FDMS.

"This lack of harmonization fundamentally undermines the concept of a cross-agency database of rule-making materials," the report said. "Unless decisive steps are taken to standardize key data practices -- it will be hard for agencies, and impossible for the public, to reap the benefits of a governmentwide rule-making database."

To yield reliable, comprehensible results, agencies must agree on basics, such as a common nomenclature and classification system for documents; the type of information to supply and which data will be publicly available, the report recommended.

To significantly overhaul Regulations.gov, "You would have to change FDMS, and I do hope they do that," Brito said. He added that agencies also should be required to submit supplemental information. Agencies now have the option to post additional Federal Register documents, supporting materials and public comments on the site.

Neal Thurman, a principal at Customer Value Partners, a Washington area consulting firm that works to improve customer service through technology and specializes in new media, said the test for the government going forward will be to consolidate all the feedback, and then to illustrate how the suggestions have been incorporated.

"If you're a big company, this is difficult enough; if you're the government the audience is bigger, the scrutiny is greater and the resources available for the task are always challenged," Thurman said. "Transitioning from gathering citizen input to responding and ensuring that citizens know the government is responding is difficult, but there's no reason to think the government can't be successful on this front."

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