April 8, 2010

University Starts Blog for Federal Rulemaking

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In response to President Obama’s call for increased openness and transparency in government, the Cornell e-Rulemaking Initiative launched RegulationRoom.org in partnership with the Department of Transportation last month.

Regulation Room is a moderated blog that allows the general public to learn about, discuss, and react to regulations proposed by federal agencies. It expands the types of public input available to federal agencies in the rulemaking process, while serving as a teaching and research platform.

Discussions on Regulation Room are moderated by CeRI students and faculty or other nongovernmental researchers collaborating with CeRI. The federal agencies whose rules are offered collaborate in this research, in order to learn about the most effective Web 2.0 strategies for increasing public understanding and participation during rulemaking.

“Regulation affects everybody — and Regulation Room is really a series of experiments in channeling public feedback to improve regulations.” Thomas Bruce, director of the Legal Information Institute, which hosts the site, said.

Under the Obama administration, federal agencies are encouraged to seek out initiatives that will lead them towards establishing a more transparent, collaborative, and participatory government. DOT has designated Regulation Room as one of its two flagship initiatives in increasing transparency and collaboration in early February.

“The Cornell e-Rulemaking Initiative is the first project in our innovative and important partnership to increase the breadth and value of public comment in the rulemaking process,” said Secretary Ray LaHood of the Department of Transportation in a press release issued by the University on Mar. 31.

“I thank Cornell University for taking this important step with us toward keeping President Obama’s promise of opening government to more effective citizen participation.”

Prof. Cynthia Farina, law and principal researcher with CeRi, said that Regulation Room helps realize the Obama administration’s vision by equalizing the opportunity for people to take advantage of the open rule-making process with the blog.

“By law, federal agencies have to let people know about their proposed new regulations. They have to record each and every comment and take them into consideration. Some people have no idea that this process exists,” Farina said. “Some people have no idea how it works or how to participate. In most cases, we have seen a lot of interest groups and corporations giving their comments but not many individuals.”

The research team attempted to heighten the level of participation among individuals in the rule-making process in three ways.

“First, we do outreach. We pick out a rule to be featured in Regulation Room. Then, we try to figure out who might have an interest in the rule. We use both web, such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as conventional methods to get the word out to people whom we think will be interested in the rule.” Farina said. “Second, we do education. We put up videos on the site to help people understand how to use our blog and what’s going on in the rule-making process. Third, we do translation. We take the 40-page regulation documents and break them down into smaller paragraphs that ordinary people can understand to make the regulation more accessible to people.”

“These short paragraphs function as explanations that walk people through how and why the agencies have come out with a certain rule. They allow people to choose the topic that they want to talk about.” Farina said. “This format allows people to cluster their reactions and it is easier for users to discuss their opinions on particular topics. They don’t have to sort through 10 to 20 entries to get to the topic like they used to. Regulation Room facilitates targeted commenting. It also allows them to see what other people have said on the topic and build a consensus online.”

The initiative transformed a static system where people used to submit their opinions separately to federal agencies into an active exchange of opinions among groups and individuals.

“An interactive forum can keep the discussion going. Commenters get to talk to each other and learn from each other,” said Mike Wolk grad, who is a member of the research team. “In the process, they may be able to strengthen their own positions because they can better support their positions with the information that they haven’t thought about before.”

“Better feedback contributes to the ultimate quality of the rule, possibly by making it better-targeted, or easier to comply with, or improving the efficiency with which it is applied.” Bruce said. “So we get better transparency and we get better regulations because we have better transparency.”

Original Author: Jackie Lam