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Rulemaking getting short shrift on federal websites, says study

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Federal agency web designers must resist the temptation to create sites that just meet the needs of primary users at the expense of rulemaking visibility, says a study commissioned by the Administrative Conference of the United States.

The conference, an independent federal agency dedicated to improving the administrative process, commissioned University of Pennsylvania law and political science professor Cary Coglianese to examine agency use of electronic media in the rulemaking process.

In a report dated July 17, Coglianese says of the 90 agency or sub-agency websites examined by his team, 53 percent had homepages containing a rulemaking-related word that takes users to Regulations.gov, the centralized online portal for rulemaking information. But only 21 percent of those agencies use the phrase "Regulations.gov" to link to the portal.

"Agencies apparently do not believe that using the term 'Regulations.gov' is itself very helpful in directing users to the Regulations.gov website," Coglianese says.

Federal agencies that redesign their websites in order to make them most accessible to the primary audience run the risk of even further minimizing the visibility of rulemaking on federal sites, Coglianese warns.

"Rulemaking may perhaps never be a 'top task' in terms of the numbers of web users, but in a democracy few tasks compare in significance with the ability of government agencies to create binding law," he notes.

He cites as an example the Federal Communications Commission's recent redesign of its website (it has garnered bad reviews in other quarters, too). In order to find the rulemaking section of the website, users must go to the "Business & Licensing" pull-down tab.

"Placing a primary link to rulemaking information under a tab labeled 'business'...may well reflect the reality that businesses are both the most frequent users of agency websites and commenters on agency rulemaking," Coglianese says. But,"such thinking does not fit with the ideal of making the rulemaking process as accessible to ordinary citizens as it is to sophisticated repeat players."

Coglianese also says that agencies under utilize social media's potential for interactivity in the rulemaking process. There are difficulties in using social media--it can be resource intensive and members of the public who utilize it tend to expect nearly instantaneous responses. Screening out comments that contain profanity, product endorsements, gratuitous political statements and obscenities requires time and a quick response to an online post is not always possible if the point is to give an authoritative response.

In order to exploit social media more usefully, Coglianese suggests that agencies consider retaining the services of facilitators to steer the conversation "in a fashion that could be more helpful to the agency's decision makers."

The conference will meet Aug. 24 to consider the report; conference recommendations are non-binding on federal agencies.

For more:
- download Coglianese's study (.pdf)

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