EPA Tests Future of Public Comments

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18F helped the agency build a system that lets citizens comment on specific paragraphs of proposed rules.

Collecting public comment on federal rules might get a little easier. 

An Environmental Protection Agency pilot lets citizens comment on specific paragraphs of proposed rules instead of submitting them via email or in a separate text box. 

It might seem like a minor feature that should have existed before, but EPA is among the first to test drive it, according to a blog post from General Services Administration tech consultancy, 18F. Since last year, 18F and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have been gradually adding new features to the eRegulations system, an open source platform that hosts proposals online. 

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EPA is trying out the comment feature on a rule that would lay out fees for groups using the agency's hazardous waste tracking system; interested parties can choose to comment on specific sections, such as the rule's "scope" or "preamble."

Federal agencies are often required to gather feedback online for changes to existing rules or proposals before they can be added to the Code of Federal Regulations. Most agencies collect emailed comments and documents in bulk and then organize them — sometimes manually — by topic.

"Unless the submitter explicitly adds it, this format includes no contextual information — regulators won’t know which sections of the proposal are being critiqued," an 18F blog post said. Some rules might generate thousands of comments that federal employees must sort and offer responses, which can be a "costly and error-prone endeavor."

GSA has long been trying to clean up the way citizens consume government information. Two years ago, GSA's DigitalGov team used technology from RapGenius — a site that lets users annotate song lyrics to let visitors decode government policy. 

Nextgov has requested more detail from GSA.