Agencies need to spread the word about rulemaking process, report says

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Lack of awareness, lack of understanding, and information overload all contribute to limited public participation in the federal government's rulemaking process, says a recently released report (.pdf) from the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

The Federal Register is not effective in spreading the word of impending regulation to most individuals and small entities with a stake in proposed new rules, the report says. Even when the story of a proposed rule is picked up by the news media, most articles do little to explain the public comment process, say report authors Cynthia Farina, a professor of administration law at Cornell University, and Mary Newhart, executive director of the Cornell eRulemaking Initiative.

To combat this, the authors say agencies should target people who might be interested in the proposed rule through social media and other media outlets targeted at those people.

"Even if potential new participants realize that the agency is the source of regulations that affect them, they almost certainly do not routinely follow the agency's standard rulemaking communications," the authors say.

But that's not enough, they add, since they may not know participation is possible, or don't understand how to participate effectively.

"Few people know much about what federal agencies do or how regulations are actually made," the authors say..

Guidance on writing comments should be easily and prominently accessible from the location at which commenting occurs, the authors say, and that guidance should explain enough about rulemaking that people can understand not only what they should do but also why the process is important, the authors say.

Here the authors note a third obstacle: information overload with rulemaking materials.

In the electronic on-board recorders rule, for example, the notice of proposed rulemaking was 95 manuscript pages, written at a late-college/early-graduate school reading level, the authors say.

The Regulatory Impact Assessment was more than 170 pages, the authors say.

"For new participants to be able and willing to learn enough about the agency's proposal to make informed and useful comments, the rulemaking information must be radically shorter and simpler," the authors say.

For more:
- download the report "Rulemaking 2.0: Understanding and Getting Better Public Participation"

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