Draft report urges greater access to proposed rules for non-English speakers

Law professor also recommends agencies make it easier for the blind and citizens with low-bandwidth Internet to read and comment on regulations.

Federal agencies should make more of an effort to post translations of proposed new regulations on their websites for non-English speakers, according to a draft report released Monday.

Agencies also should provide text-only versions of the proposals to make them more accessible to citizens with low-bandwidth Internet and more compatible with software that translates Web pages into audio for the blind, according to the report to the rule-making committee of the Administrative Conference of the United States.

ACUS, which was reinstated in 2010 after a 14-year funding lapse, is a public-private partnership charged with advising federal agencies on sound administrative procedures.

The draft report on e-rule-making, which the group's rule-making committee will discuss at an Aug. 24 meeting, follows an earlier round of recommendations adopted by the full ACUS conference in June. Those recommendations focused on how agencies should collect and manage public comments on proposed rules.

ACUS suggestions are not binding on any government agencies.

Proposed new rules and regulations promulgated by an agency are legally required to be listed in the Federal Register, but are typically also placed on agency websites. Agencies have been required to accept public comments on proposed rules online since 2002.

The e-rule-making report was authored by University of Pennsylvania Law Professor Cary Coglianese and released to committee members July 17.

Agencies that lack the time or resources to share proposals in multiple languages, or that can render them only in a few main languages, should consider providing links to online programs such as Google Translate next to the text, Coglianese recommended. He acknowledged, though, that agencies are rightfully hesitant to rely on automatic translation programs for sensitive and often very technical regulatory language.

The report recommended making an extra effort to translate proposed regulations that will have an inordinate effect on citizens who are not fluent in English, such as those stemming from trade agreements and other treaties with foreign nations.

About two-thirds of agencies that carry a heavy rule-making load link to non-English language text on their home pages, Coglianese said. About one-third of agency sites overall have such links, according to his report.

Only about 3 percent of federal agencies offer low-bandwidth accessible text-only options on their websites and none of those agencies do a significant amount of rule-making, he said.

People without broadband access tend to have lower incomes and lower levels of education than broadband users and are more likely to be black or Hispanic, Coglianese said.

Agencies also should consider giving more prominent placement to proposed rules on their website home pages and should create a one-stop shop for all new regulations promulgated by the agency that are currently open for public comment, he recommended.

The trend in agency websites, he said, has been to give favored access to citizen services and other items that the public visits most often, which tends to push proposed rule-making off agency home pages.

"Rule-making may perhaps never be a 'top task' in terms of the numbers of Web users," Coglianese said, "but in a democracy few tasks compare in significance with the ability of government agencies to create binding law backed up with the threat of civil, and even, criminal penalties."