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Clearing the Public's Path in to Federal Decision-Making

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, April 13 2009

OpenRegulations.org » Archive » Reexamination of the Comparative Standards for Noncommercial Educational ApplicantsJerry Brito, whose name you might recognize from his work on StimulusWatch.org, has a second project called OpenRegulations.org.

Now, Brito's site is a variation on the theme of Regulations.gov. Federal regulations are, of course, the place where agencies interpret statute laid down by Congress. To pick just two examples from last week, we as citizens have, under law, the right to have input on how federal agencies write regulations on everything from the Federal Communication Commission's plan to provision broadband in underserved areas to the Department of Health and Human Service's stand on whether health providers can be required to perform abortions. "Your Voice in Federal-Decision Making" is the tagline for the site. For many of us, Regulations.gov is our best way to meaningfully engage in the policy-making side of the federal government. The site is, in some ways, actually an advance. Individual agencies still oversee the rule-making process, but Regulations.gov is a one-stop shop for commenting across agency matters.

That said, perhaps exactly because it's really nobody's child, Regulations.gov is awful. Just awful. Don't, for example, expect to search for "broadband" or "abortion" and expect to come up with relevant information.

Brito's OpenRegulations.org takes a step or two towards something better. His site pulls from the same Federal Register information as the feds' site. The difference is a much more intelligible user interface. The site's most major improvement is that each agency gets its own RSS feed. That makes for easy tracking in the policy area of your choice.

There may be cause for something better coming from inside government. You might have heard that former University of Chicago professor Cass Sunstein has been appointed to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. OIRA oversees the federal rulemaking process. Sunstein's work on behavioral economics (see, for example, his "Nudge" with Richard Thaler) is all about helping people to make better decisions through choice architecture -- basically creating better contexts in which those decisions can be made. There are worse places to start than upgrading Regulations.gov.