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Regulations.Gov: The Future of Regulatory Policy?

 
 

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Many Americans view government regulations as complicated edicts handed down by distant bureaucrats. But what if ordinary citizens from across the country could monitor rulemaking in Washington, D.C. and participate actively in the process of making new government regulations - all without ever leaving their offices or homes? Information technology may hold the answer.

According to participants at a recent conference organized by CBG's Regulatory Policy Program (RPP), an emerging field known as "e-rulemaking" may help expand the public's role in regulatory policymaking, as well as give regulators better tools for crafting more cost-effective regulations.

At the January 21-22, 2003 conference, RPP brought together forty of the nation's leading experts from computer sciences, law, and public management, along with key leaders from government, to forge an agenda for future research on regulatory applications of information technology. Participants analyzed existing best practices and worked toward crafting research strategies to build the next generation of e-rulemaking.

E-rulemaking is part of a government-wide effort to use information technology to enhance democratic engagement and improve government services. At its most basic level, e-rulemaking provides citizens a greatly expanded opportunity through the Internet to review and comment on new government regulations.

Each year, hundreds of different government agencies - from the Departments of Agriculture and Transportation to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission - issue thousands of regulations affecting almost every aspect of citizens' lives. Some of these agencies are beginning to allow citizens to view proposed regulations online. Citizens can then submit electronic comments on these rules, and sometimes even interact with government officials and other interested citizens through online deliberations.

"If citizens can shop and bank online, surely they should be able to petition their government online," said Cary Coglianese, the chair of the Regulatory Policy Program. "Information technology can make it easier for citizens to participate in the process of making regulatory policy."

 

The timing of the workshop dovetailed with the Bush Administration's announcement of its first major e-rulemaking initiative, www.regulations.gov. The website, launched the day after the conference closed, serves as a clearinghouse for all federal regulations under development by federal agencies and will enable citizens to file electronic comments - up to 16,000 per hour - on any proposed regulation, regardless of the originating federal agency. The public officials leading the Regulations.Gov initiative also participated in the Regulatory Policy Program's conference.

While Regulations.Gov is certainly an innovative endeavor, according to some participants at the RPP conference the site does not tap the full potential for citizen participation and interaction in rulemaking that even existing technologies make possible. Some agencies such as the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency have already implemented more sophisticated e-rulemaking systems; there remains, though, a clear need for new applications of information technology in the regulatory process, as well as research into ways of reengineering the regulatory process to take better advantage of new technologies. The workshop opened the dialogue on some of these opportunities.

"Even on the information superhighway, every journey begins with one step," said Coglianese. "Right now, only a small fraction of agencies allow the public to submit comments electronically. The future promises still more opportunities for creative applications of information technology."

The RPP conference will form the basis for a report to the National Science Foundation on research strategies for increasing and managing public participation in all stages of e-rulemaking, as well as to improve the government's internal analysis and management of rulemaking. While technological capabilities are not limitless, most participants recognized that information systems can help ameliorate, and perhaps break through, some of the morass of rulemaking.

"Government regulation impacts everything from economic health to public health, so the smart use of information technology will be important for both regulators and the public," said Coglianese.

-Kate Dodson

 
 
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