Regulation Room: Getting More, Better Public Participation

Every four years the American electorate participates in a national debate to choose the next head of the Executive branch. In 2008, a record 131,257,328 Americans cast ballots in the presidential election. Yet despite the increased popular engagement in choosing the Head of the Executive Branch, very few people participate in the thousands of major Executive Branch decisions that affect their daily lives. Federal agencies make regulations that affect everything from the quality of drinking water, to safety measures in the cars we operate, to privacy of sensitive personal health information. Most citizens are unaware that these decisions are being made, and even fewer understand and take advantage of their ability to participate.

The emergence of social media and wide utilization of the Internet presents a unique opportunity for Federal agencies to interact with citizens. In the 2008 presidential campaign cycle, millions of Americans followed their candidates on Facebook, Twitter, and Mypace. Through social media alone, President Obama raised a record-breaking $600 million and arrived at the White House with a database including millions of his supporters’ names. President Obama has made it a priority to use the Internet and information technologies to reach citizens during the political process, such as administrative rule-making.

The Department of Transportation, for instance, followed the President’s direction by choosing an online public participation platform—Regulation Room designed by the Cornell eRulemaking Initiative (CeRI)—to inform the public of their actions and receive feedback. Professor Farina discusses the Cornell eRulemaking Initiative (CeRI) and the development of the Regulation Room below.

The day after his inauguration, President Obama issued a memorandum to federal Executive agencies directing them to use Web 2.0 and other information technologies to increase transparency, participation, and collaboration in their decisionmaking. In December 2009, an implementing Office of Management and Budget directive gave agencies four months to create an “Open Government Plan” that included (i) proposals “to inform the public of significant actions and business of your agency;” (ii) “new feedback mechanisms, including innovative tools and practices that create new and easier methods for public engagement;” and (iii) “use [of] technology platforms to improve collaboration among people within and outside your agency.”

The Department of Transportation (DOT), whose agencies account for a substantial percentage of new federal regulations, chose the Regulation Room project as its Open Government Plan “flagship initiative.” Regulation Room is an online public participation platform dedicated to learning how Web 2.0 technologies and methods can best support meaningful engagement by individuals and groups who tend not to participate in the conventional rulemaking process. Regulation Room is designed and operated by the Cornell eRulemaking Initiative (CeRI), a cross-disciplinary group of faculty and students from Communications, Computing, Information Science, Law, and the Scheinman Institute on Conflict Resolution.

Although the Obama Administration uses blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc. in a variety of settings, rulemaking has been a particular Government 2.0 focus because of its centrality in affecting domestic federal policy. However, it turns out that significant hurdles exist to actually getting broader, better public participation in rulemaking—even with the help of Web 2.0 technologies.

Many well-educated and politically sophisticated individuals are completely unaware when rulemakings that will affect them are going on. Even if they are aware, they often do not understand how the process works and what participation opportunities they have. And it is daunting to wade through the amount of complex information generated in a rulemaking. For people with less education and fewer resources, these barriers are even more formidable.

CeRI’s Regulation Room project draws on multidisciplinary knowledge and insights to lower these barriers. The site offers a variety of user-friendly ways for people to learn about the rulemaking process, understand the issues of the proposed rule, and target their comments to the aspects of most concern. For each rule, targeted outreach plans use social and conventional media to alert individuals and groups affected by the proposal. Students of the E-Government Clinic (who learn, among other things, conflict resolution and group facilitation techniques) mentor those who “enter” Regulation Room, the vast majority of whom report never having taken part in a federal rulemaking before. These moderators provide information about the rule, encourage reason-giving and other effective commenting techniques, and promote discussion among commenters. One longer-term goal of the project is developing automated systems to perform at least some of functions currently being done in Regulation Room by human moderators.

Regulation Room is now hosting its fourth DOT rulemaking: a proposal to require that air travel websites and kiosks be made accessible to people with disabilities. We are especially excited about the possibility of alerting and engaging travelers with disabilities, as well as individuals with practical experience in accessible design, to help answer the many questions DOT has about effectual, timely, and cost-effective accessibility standards. An additional challenge for us in this rulemaking has been working to achieve the proposed standards of accessible web design in Regulation Room itself.

Americans are not accustomed to broad-scale, truly informed engagement with the policymaking processes of their government. Web 2.0 technologies and methods are no panacea for this. At times, they make the problem worse by encouraging shallow, “drive by” participation. We at Regulation Room believe that new information and communication technologies can indeed “nudge” more individuals and groups towards more informed and effective participation in rulemaking, planning, budgeting and other complex government policy making processes. But this requires careful planning, purposeful design, and the willingness to invest the human and technological resources needed to support the emergence of new civic participation habits. Regulation Room is an important first step in learning what it takes to get more and better public participation.

The Regulation Room project is funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, the IBM Center for the Business of Government, and Google Faculty Research Awards, and by the generous support of Cornell Law School. In 2010, Regulation Room received a White House Leading Practices Award after a government-wide review of Open Government initiatives.

Cynthia R. Farina is the McRoberts Professor of Research in the Administration of the Law and Principal Researcher in the Cornell eRulemaking Initiative.

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