Each year, federal agencies develop more than 8,000 rules governing the way in which federal laws will be administered. These rules have a profound impact on the interaction between citizens and the federal government, setting enforcement schedules and penalties as well as delineating exactly what constitutes compliance with a particular law. Citizens therefore have a strong incentive to comment on potential rules.
Until recently, citizens interested in commenting on a proposed rule dealing with a given issue would have to identify the agencies with jurisdiction over that issue, learn whether those agencies were creating new rules, and then learn the agency's individual procedure for submitting comments. The process was so cumbersome that many individuals and lobbying groups wishing to comment on proposed rulemaking would have to hire outside companies to assemble the necessary information to do so. Attention to this problem has mounted; both the Clinton and Bush administrations have repeatedly urged federal agencies to make their rulemaking processes easier to use by putting them on the Internet.
In early 2005, a wide variety of federal agencies, from the Department of Labor to the Environmental Protection Agency, banded together to create Regulations.gov, a streamlined, web-based process for public commentary on proposed rules. The program is designed to allow ordinary citizens to access the federal rulemaking process with ease. It operates just like any other website, allowing people to search for rules under discussion by topic, agency, or keyword.
While bringing a vast amount of information under one roof, the site is also sensitive to the diverse needs of different federal agencies. The site preserves agencies' individual comment procedures instead of standardizing them across the site. Users need only fill out slightly different forms. Agencies can then maintain consistency between traditional comments and e-comments, and need not disrupt their rulemaking process in order to join Regulations.gov. Federal, state, and local legislators also benefit from the site's creation. When considering legislation on a particular policy area, it is now much easier to examine relevant rules across several agencies, allowing them to craft more consistent laws and regulations in turn.
Since the site's creation, citizens can more easily understand and influence the rules that impact their lives. It greatly furthers the goal of the comment process-transparency to the public, which should result in a more responsible rulemaking process. Individuals are not the only ones to benefit from Regulations.gov. Policy researchers, interest groups, businesses, and other interested parties also have greatly expanded access to the rulemaking process.
Regulations.gov is intended to be replicable. The programmers intentionally set up the site to easily accommodate state rule-making processes in the future. Other countries see the site as a model for e-government as well; China and Japan have already sent representatives to speak with the Regulations.gov team.