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Advisory group hedges on translating fed rules online

A recommendation that federal agencies translate online background information about proposed new regulations into languages other than English could drag an administrative advisory group into bitter partisan drama and yield few actual results, some members of the group's rule-making committee said at a meeting last week.

"This is red-flag-to-a-bull stuff," said Richard Pierce Jr., a George Washington University law professor and member of the Administrative Conference of the United States' rule-making committee. "This can get ACUS in so much trouble in so many social media. If this gets in the hands of the wrong talk radio people, the idea that an agency of the federal government is saying we've got to make all of this stuff available in multiple languages . . . I say leave this to agencies and let them take the heat for whatever the politics are on each side."

Other committee members were less worried about raising the ire of lawmakers and pundits who oppose providing citizen services in languages other than English, but said the chances a recommendation would yield any polyglot fruit in this tight budget climate were too slim to make it worthwhile.

Committee Chairman Robert Rivkin countered that translating some government Web content, especially information that's of special interest to a particular group of non-English speakers, is good citizen services, and already a common practice of many foreign governments and some federal agencies such as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau.

He conceded, though, that the language in the recommendation could be softened to make it less "prescriptive."

The recommendation to translate online rules sprang from a draft report to the ACUS committee on how federal agencies should treat rule-making on their own websites.

Proposed new rules and regulations are legally required to be listed in the Federal Register and on Regulations.gov, but many agencies also list proposed rules and background information about those rules on their own websites. Agencies have been required to accept public comments on proposed rules online since 2002.

The draft report, by University of Pennsylvania Law professor Cary Coglianese, also advises agencies to cut down on fancy graphics on Web pages about proposed regulations so they can be easily interpreted by software that reads Web pages to the blind.

Agencies that are collecting feedback about proposed rules through social media should be clear about how those comments will be used and avoid confusing the public about what counts as an official public comment on a proposed rule and what does not, the report advises.

ACUS members are all government officials or outside experts in administrative law. The conference, which was reinstated in 2010 after a 14-year funding lapse, is charged with advising federal agencies on sound administrative procedures.

The ACUS committee will meet to discuss the rule-making proposals again in November and present a final draft to a plenary session in December.

ACUS recommendations aren't binding on federal agencies.

Committee members agreed that information about proposed new rules and the links to them on Regulations.gov should be displayed prominently on agency websites. But they weren't optimistic such links would make their way to all agency home pages.

"We have had a constant battle with the people who maintain the department home page, because they don't think rule-making belongs [there]," said committee member Neil Eisner, assistant general counsel for regulation and enforcement at the Transportation Department. "It's been there, it disappears, we get it back on, it disappears again and finally we give up."

A conference member said it would be simple for agencies to link to all pending rules proposed by the agency on Regulations.gov using a canned search -- essentially a hyperlink to a set of results from the Regulations.gov search tab.

Federal websites have recently been the battleground for larger debates about how the government can best provide customer service and what is the proper balance between displaying information citizens want from agencies and information agencies wants to push out to citizens.

Federal rule-making information tends to get few hits on federal websites, but that belies the information's true importance, Coglianese argued.

"This is a monumental power that's in the hands of unelected officials," he said during a break in last week's conference. "Rules that agencies adopt have the force of law. People can be fined or even potentially go to jail for violating these rules."

Though they're further down in the weeds than most citizens are interested in searching, Coglianese, said, newly promulgated federal rules and regulations are at the heart of the lively debate about the proper size and scope of government and making information about federal rules more accessible could be a prime way of facilitating that debate.

"This information should be accessible to all Americans," Coglianese said, "not just to those sophisticated players that know how to navigate through the system to find it."

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