Report: Federal Regulations Website Should Consider Adopting Yelp-Style Commenting Approach

Silicon Valley nonprofit Argive scrutinized, the decade-old federal website designed as an online repository of developing government regulations and comments about them.

by / June 28, 2017 launched in 2003 during then-President George W. Bush’s first term as an online resource to research and comment on federal regulations under development. Despite making improvements in recent years, however, website curators have more work to do, say officials at nonprofit Argive.

Designed as a way to modernize public interaction prescribed by legal obligations dating to the 1940s, the website created a centralized repository for a veritable mountain of federal data — everything from scientific and technical findings to food labeling and national monument review regulations.

But in the June 15 report Improving A Perspective from Silicon Valley, authors at Argive, a 501(c)(3) focused on improving transparency and accountability in regulatory decision-making, said the website’s mission would be greatly enhanced if aspects of its process were updated.

Calling the website “dated” and “a formality to legislative requirements of the rule-making process,” report authors documented issues they found during an analysis of two rule-making dockets.

The first examined a presidential memorandum calling on the Department of Commerce to take comments on rules affecting American manufacturers. Nearly 200 people ultimately commented.

The second scrutinized a comment analysis of responses to the controversial Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rule that equates electronic cigarettes with tobacco products and therefore subject to the same regulations.

Here, more than 100,000 commenters weighed in; but, authors wrote, “both illustrate similar challenges in soliciting effective regulatory feedback.”

Maleka Momand, Argive president and one of three report authors, told Government Technology that the website’s underlying issue is how it “is designed to collect and process the comments.”

Also at issue is that comments were submitted as “unstructured free text or PDF attachments,” making them tough to quickly read, interpret or summarize public opinion.

To remedy this, report authors suggested that up-voting, summary statistics and the ability to track “comments on comments” would be useful additions, and recommended the Amazon product review interface as a helpful model.

Another contention in the report was that "because most of the public is unfamiliar with," a “majority” of comments on requests for information (RFIs) came from interest groups "with coordinated federal lobbying agendas,” according to the report.

The authors' recommendations included having the agencies that draft the regulations tag them with industry-specific North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) codes and build RSS feeds based on those codes.

Filtering comments by industry, and from newest to oldest, and thinking about different ways to “splice” data could “produce more actionable insights for policymakers,” Momand said.

And to cut down on duplicate comments, authors recommended offering users the option of signing an online petition posted to the docket.

Also, limited comment windows date to the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946, a foundation of, but stand in contrast to modern private-sector websites like Yelp. Argive recommended creating “living dockets” and eliminating 90-day comment periods.

Momand said she envisions an update built on software that could create a more effective, Yelp-like experience, “where you can read other people’s reviews, up-vote it, down-vote it, add your own comments to it and really create this dynamic filtering function. …”

The existing comment window, she said, stifles “sophisticated analysis or well-put-together thoughts on a rule.”

Comments “rarely” yielded tangible data on the costs and benefits of rules — another consequence of limited comment periods. Improving cost-benefit models and clearly explaining their assumptions could help, authors wrote.

Also, comments seldom suggested “actionable improvements” or “specific legal changes” to the rules in question.

Comment windows stifle the chance that submissions might continue and provide ongoing documentation of a regulation’s success or failure, Momand and other website users told Government Technology.

“I think that just allowing for more long-term planning and allowing people to comment down the line on how a rule has impacted them would be pretty tremendous in our ability to capture how the regulatory state operates and how it affects the U.S.,” Momand said.

Doing away with them “could improve regulations by providing additional information to agencies that they might have missed,” said Sofie E. Miller, senior policy analyst at the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Patrick McLaughlin, a senior research fellow and director of the Program for Economic Research on Regulation at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Virginia, said he "wouldn’t want to entirely throw under the bus. But on the other hand, they could have gone further, they can still go further."

A larger issue, McLaughlin added, is that “there are too many cooks in the kitchen in some sense.”

“The content on the website depends on all the different agencies using the website correctly. But the central curators can’t do all that themselves,” he added, referring to naming and filing documents correctly.

McLaughlin and Miller agreed curators are likely very interested in making ongoing updates to the website.

“Their goal is to improve regulations by improving information and improving public participation in the process,” Miller told Government Technology.

In 2013, open government advocate the Sunlight Foundation generally agreed, praising the recent release of its API as well as styling, presentation and organizational updates.

As to whether the government website could someday more closely resemble Yelp, Miller said the idea reminded her of several years ago when Wikipedia became popular and some suggested government regulations follow its style in becoming living documents.

“These kinds of ideas have been around for a while. I’m not sure how well they fit into our administrative law system,” she said, indicating statutory changes might be needed first.

McLaughlin, creator of website RegData, which quantifies regulations by content and industry, praised for having an API and said launching a private Yelp-style website where visitors could give feedback on its documents “wouldn’t be that hard to set up.”

But even in the private sector, “whether it’s actually used is the bigger question,” he said. “That remains to be determined.”

Theo Douglas Staff Writer

Theo Douglas is a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.

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