Engaging the public in federal rulemaking, Gov 2.0-style

Getting more people involved in federal rulemaking is not easy, but the Regulation Room website is seeing some interesting results.

As part of the Obama administration’s emphasis on transparency and open government, there is a push to get the public more engaged in federal rulemaking activities by moving the process online.

But it’s not an easy sell, and no one knows that better than Cynthia Farina.

As a law professor at Cornell University and a principal researcher for the Cornell e-Rulemaking Initiative, she knows how difficult it is for federal agencies to bring new voices into a discussion in a meaningful way. And she is doing something about it with Cornell’s innovative RegulationRoom.org project with federal agencies, particularly the Transportation Department.

“The challenge with getting more people involved with e-rulemaking is that many people do not understand what rulemaking is and how it works,” Farina said. “Rulemaking materials are very complex and long, with legal and technical jargon. The system is almost impenetrable.”

Efforts are under way to change that. Officials recently published a guide of best practices at Regulations.gov, a federal e-rulemaking Web portal. And in January, the Social Security Administration invited the public to send comments on its regulations via e-mail.

Regulation Room, which debuted a year ago, recently boasted nearly 1,200 registered users and more than 24,000 site visitors for a proposed rule about airline passengers’ rights. Significantly, 94 percent of them were first-time participants in federal rulemaking — a result Farina said is very encouraging.

“Regulation Room is a cool example of how e-rulemaking can solve a problem and get more people involved,” said Steve Ressler, president of GovLoop, a social network for federal workers. “It is impressive to see it getting traction and a lot of visitors.” He credited intuitive design and good marketing for its success.

Regulation Room is now generating discussion of a proposal to require 4 million truckers to install electronic recorders to track their hours of service in an effort to enhance safety and do away with paper-based documentation. The project is timed to coincide with the official DOT public comment period for the rule. The website is remade for each rule under consideration.

Regulation Room highlights major issues and concerns, such as cost and privacy, and who must comply with the resulting rule. Near the end of the comment period, the researchers will draw up a consensus document, post it for additional comments and submit the final copy to DOT as an official comment. Site visitors are encouraged to describe their roles, such as trucker or truck stop operator, but they are not required to do so. Nor are they required to disclose their identity or location. Sixteen student moderators oversee the discussion, and commenters are encouraged to link to scientific research or data that supports their position.

Expect the unexpected

Moderators have noticed that after a few weeks, visitors begin to repeat the same arguments and information. Farina calls it cycling and said researchers seek to automatically identify when it occurs.

“The intent is to determine if there is a possibility of developing a consensus online,” she said. “You should not do it until the discussion is full.”

Another lesson they have learned is to expect the unexpected. For the airline rule, which primarily concerned costs for extra baggage and treatment of bumped passengers, the discussion veered into a passionate debate about a provision involving peanuts on airplanes, mostly by people who are allergic to peanuts.

“The peanut allergy discussion was the single hottest item,” Farina said. “It all went viral.”

She said outreach efforts using social media, such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs, are crucial to attracting individuals to the Regulation Room website. Cornell researchers comb through social media sites to see who is talking about a regulation and then post links on those sites.

Monitoring discussions can be challenging at times, especially during evening and weekend hours. Because it is tricky to predict how and when a spike in traffic might occur, Farina said, the researchers are experimenting with different approaches to minimize the hours they must spend monitoring the site.

One important aspect of the project can bewilder many first-time users: There is no way to vote on or rank comments or ideas. “We do not allow voting on comments because we think it creates pressure and encourages gaming the system, so it is not helpful,” Farina said.

A major misconception that many visitors to Regulation Room have is that participating in regulatory activity involves voting yes or no on a proposal, she added.

“People complain to us, ‘I cannot see where to vote! Just tell me where to vote!’ ” she said. “They can get very frustrated. They want to do ‘drive-by’ participation, and turning that around and engaging them is very difficult. Some can do it, but some do not want to expend the effort.”