Public access to government rule-making lags

Despite the federal government’s advances in electronic access to its records and services, private citizens may still have a hard time commenting on proposed federal rules and regulations, according to a new government study requested by lawmakers.

Each year, federal agencies publish thousands of regulations that can affect almost every aspect of citizens’ lives. And IT is viewed by the government as a critical tool in enabling citizens and businesses to comment on those proposed rules as well as its ability to respond to taxpayer concerns.

However, a new study, “Electronic Rule Making,” published Oct. 20 by the U.S. General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that even the government’s lead agency for the electronic rule-making initiative, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, didn’t provide the public with the ability to submit comments electronically on most of its proposed rules.

“The rulemaking agencies provided for e-comments in only about 66 percent of the rules,” the GAO said. And, it added, “where agencies permitted e-comments, the methods provided varied.”

But senior government officials took issue with the study’s timing, saying the GAO conducted its audit at a time when various large-scale initiatives were just getting under way.

“It’s very unfortunate that this report was done when it was done,” said Kim Nelson, CIO at the EPA and the co-chair of the architecture and infrastructure committee of the federal CIO Council. “It’s really doing a disservice to the public. If the same study were done today, the numbers would be far different.

“A system of this magnitude is a huge cultural and business process shift. You don’t do it in one day, one month or even three months,” she said. “We think it was a darn good first effort for a first version.”

The Government Paperwork Elimination Act, passed by Congress in 1998, required federal agencies to provide the public with the option of submitting, maintaining and disclosing information to the government electronically by yesterday. And the E-Government Act of 2002 (E-Gov Act) further required that public comments be accepted “by electronic means.”

One of the initiatives launched early this year to meet the requirements of the E-Gov Act was the development of the Web site. Although the site identified nearly all of the open and proposed federal rules, its design sometimes made finding them difficult, the GAO found.

In addition, just two of the 411 rules published by individual agencies pointed to the Web site as an option for people to submit electronic comments. “As a result, few comments were submitted via” during the three-month period the GAO studied the issue. In fact, the Web site was the only vehicle for public comment for 100 of the rules published by the agencies, meaning most people researching the rules had no way of easily figuring out how to submit comments using that site.

The Bush administration launched the Web site in January to allow citizens to find, review and submit comments on proposed agency rules and other documents. According to its April 2003 e-government strategy, one of the administration’s goals is to receive 200,000 electronic comments via This would “democratize an often closed process” and save nearly US$100 million by creating a single system to access and comment on federal agencies’ rules, eliminating duplicative agency-specific systems, according to the Bush strategy.

“Unfortunately, the public remains more than a mouse click away from submitting comments on proposed federal regulations,” said Sen. Susan Collins, (R-Maine), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and a sponsor of the study. “I’m encouraged by the steps the government has taken, especially with the introduction of But it’s still difficult to navigate through the tangled online regulatory Web sites of individual agencies,” she said.

Richard D. Otis Jr., program manager for the eRulemaking Initiative at the EPA, said in a response to the GAO findings that the study doesn’t accurately and fairly characterize the current abilities of the EPA’s Edocket system. “A snapshot of a point in time during the rollout of an information technology system, by definition, cannot accurately or fairly present the functional capabilities and status of a system,” he said.

Otis also defended the Web site, saying it had been in operation for less than two weeks when GAO started its study. “It will take longer to develop,” he said, adding that future modules will create a central repository for all federal rule-making information and public participation.

Earlier this month, the EPA signed a contract with Lockheed Martin Corp. and BearingPoint Inc. to help expand the Edocket system for governmentwide use, said Otis. Officials are now establishing a CIO steering committee and task forces for XML use, legal processes and business process reengineering for each of the major rule-making agencies throughout government, he said.

The Edocket system is expected to be handle 90 percent of the rule-making traffic by October 2005, Otis said.