Agencies Should Be More Transparent About Public Comments, GAO Says

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By defining and disclosing how they handle commenters’ information, agencies could help combat identity fraud and other abuses, auditors said.

Federal auditors want agencies to be more transparent about how they use information collected through the public commenting process, especially as the internet creates new possibilities for fraud and abuse.

The Government Accountability Office launched the investigation last year after lawmakers raised concerns about the integrity of the public comment process at the Federal Communications Commission and other federal agencies. In 2017, the commission received some 22 million comments on a controversial proposal to dismantle Obama-era net neutrality regulations, but researchers determined a significant portion of those comments came from bots and people using stolen identities. A Wall Street Journal investigation later that year found multiple agencies were also plagued by dubious submissions.

Under the law, agencies are required to give the public an opportunity to weigh in on potential new regulations and policy changes, but the process for handling that feedback varies widely across government, according to GAO. Some organizations have clear policies for identifying commenters and analyzing submissions while others do not, auditors said, but agencies often don’t communicate those practices to the public.

“As a result, public users of the comment websites lack information related to data availability and limitations that could affect their ability to use the comment data and effectively participate in the rulemaking process themselves,” auditors said in a report published Friday. 

Specifically, auditors said agencies should be more explicit about how they identify users and handle duplicate submissions, and the organizations that don’t already have policies in place need to lay down some guidelines.

Each of the 10 agencies included in the report collects identity information on commenters, such as IP addresses, operating systems and website timestamps. Such data helps agencies better analyze submissions, and because comment data is public, researchers can use identity information to better understand public opinion. 

Though federal law doesn’t require agencies to disclose how that information is used, doing so would help the public better analyze comment data and participate in the government’s decision-making process, according to GAO. In the report, auditors made eight recommendations intended to ensure specific agencies clearly define and disclose their public comment policies, and each organization generally agreed with the suggestions.

Making the public commenting process more transparent could help agencies better combat fraud, and thus give greater weight to public feedback, lawmakers said.

“With the regulatory comment process increasingly moving online, we are finding that policies developed decades ago are not always suited to today’s environment,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who asked GAO to launch the investigation. “The American people must be able to participate in an open and meaningful public comment process to help federal agencies devise smarter and better-informed regulations. In order for the process to be effective, however, we must have sound policies in place to prevent online abuse and make sure that Americans’ participation is meaningful and useful to federal agencies.”

The Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which Portman chairs, plans to hold a hearing on public comment challenges in September.