Of Crayons, Form Letters and Spam
They must review comments on the proposed rules from citizens, businesses and interest groups, then incorporate the public's general will into the final drafts that govern us.
"Rules and rule-making affect everyone in the US. For most of the public, it's still a kind of unknown process, yet agencies like the EPA and the DOT write nearly 6,000 regulations a year," says Oscar Morales, a Division Director at the EPA who serves as director of the federal government's eRulemaking Initiative.
In 1946, the Administrative Procedures Act formalized what had been an ad hoc system, trying to ensure that every voice was heard - however it was expressed. "Our government partners told us comments come in many different forms, even crayon," says Stuart Shulman, assistant professor of Environmental Science and Policy at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
But this is one question that postwar policymakers never had to answer - and one that Shulman's team of Digital Government researchers is exploring: "How can all of these voices be heard effectively when processed through the digital filter of the Internet?"
While it is hard to read crayon, it is harder still to read the thousands of emails that can be generated when an interest group rallies like-minded citizens; "Maybe the price you've got to pay for e-democracy is thousands more comments," says Morales. Whatever the method of public comment - crayon, ink or spam - agencies somehow must give appropriate weight to all of it.
When Shulman first contacted him about collaborating on the project, Morales says, "It surprised me to find out there was an academic interested in this - it turns out there's a lot."
Shulman, who had been studying public-government interaction, proved to be an ideal partner. Since Drake University emphasizes an interdisciplinary approach to information technology, Shulman - a political scientist - built a team that includes a sociologist and two computer scientists. "It's a good fit between Stu and his crew," says Morales, "Nobody's tried online rulemaking the way we both have."
The eRulemaking Initiative, composed of more than a dozen major agencies, is charged with creating a "one-stop shop" system that could be used by all federal agencies - nearly two hundred in total - to solicit and sort through comments on proposed regulations.
Shulman is in the process of conducting workshops to determine the needs of agency staffers and the concerns of citizen groups. "We're bringing people together [regulators and interest groups] who often communicate at arm's length," says Shulman.
There are three phases to the Initiative's plan. Phase 1 - the site Regulations.gov - is already a winner of the 2003 eGovernment Pioneer Award, despite being considered an interim solution, It lists proposed rules with links for the public to make comments to the appropriate agency.
The second phase, due to be in place in 18 months, would merge the separate systems of all the various agencies into one general portal. (Still undetermined is whether it will carry the Regulations.gov name). The portal will be a "a considerably enhanced" version of EDockets.com, EPA's current online rule-making system, says Morales.
When constructed, it will be the exclusive online destination for public comment on proposed regulations. At the site, "The public will be able to comment directly on rules the federal government has initiated," says Morales. The site is intended to be especially informative by letting the public have, "at their disposal, supporting documentation and other comments that have been filed," according to Morales.
The third stage will be the most useful to the agencies and the most challenging: It should consist of "an enhanced suite of applications that will help the agencies write, assess and create rules, to be able to handle it all electronically," says Morales.
On the positive side, says Shulman of agency staffers, "We get real-world practitioners holding discussions at the level of academic debate. You could see them start to think about things not just as management problems, but as democratic issues: 'What's the meaning of citizen communication?'" But when he held a separate workshop for interest groups, it was a shock for him to discover that "I was being viewed with suspicion by the very sorts of groups that - as a professor of environmental policy - I agree with."
What concerned the interest groups - and the agency IT staffers, although for very different reasons - is the proposal to automate the assessment of comments.
First, there's the purely technical challenge of how many steps will be needed to convert often nearly illegible handwritten comments into digital form. Can such a process even be fully automated, or may there always have to be, as there are now, outside contractors whose job it is to sort through comments? The answer isn't yet known, although researchers and government e-rulemakers hope it may be possible to create a system that would help streamline the workload for contractors and potentially lead to cost savings.
Second is a cultural difference. To an agency person, form letters from large numbers of the public are a headache - one that could potentially be solved by a computer, which could pick up repetitive phrases and simply summarize how many for, how many against. But to concerned organizations, "A million comments is a message of intensity," says Shulman. What came through loud and clear at the workshop was that the system needs to be built in a way that that message can still be heard. In addition, it needs to be able to parse out unique comments of significance in otherwise similar letters.
Further, according to Shulman, "Organizations fear that if citizens go directly to Regulations.gov, they lose the ability to harvest useful data - like potential members - or offer further information on the issues. They'd like an open and transparent way to build their own interfaces that would map onto Regulations.gov, so they could guide the would-be commenter. They want to preserve their traditional role in American politics as mediators."
Shulman will conduct further workshops to gather and consider more of these concerns, and Morales and his committee will be paying close attention to the results as they work to create a first of its kind government portal. "We're in uncharted areas," says Morales, "It's good to have academics around who aren't bound by any rule except the pursuit of the truth. That makes it an extraordinarily useful partnership."
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