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 the Regulatory Policy Program (RPP) of the Kennedy School’s Center for Business and Government (CBG), 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 conference held Jan. 21-22, RPP brought together 40 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.
E-rulemaking is part of a governmentwide effort to use information technology to enhance democratic engagement and improve government services. At its most basic level, e-rulemaking provides citizens with a greatly expanded opportunity to review and comment on new government regulations through the Internet.
Each year, hundreds of 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, http://www.regulations.gov. The Web site, 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.
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. Though 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.