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Social Media and Public Comments in Rulemaking

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Social media is playing an increasing role in how the government interacts with citizens. Just take a look at the number of comments members of Congress receive via platforms like Twitter or Facebook, or look to the amount of interaction in the "Ask Me Anything" discussion President Barack Obama held on Reddit.

How can social media can be used to facilitate public comment in the rulemaking process? An ongoing project to discover its pros and cons is being run by the Administrative Conference of the United States' (ACUS) Committee on Rulemaking. The group, along with consultant Michael Herz, is looking into legal and policy challenges to using social media in rulemaking, with the aim of identifying ways to resolve some of those obstacles. Another goal is to encourage "appropriate and innovative ways to use social media to facilitate broader, more meaningful public participation in rulemaking activities."

Federal agencies are still trying to figure out whether and how social media can benefit their rulemaking processes. The U.S. Department of Transportation, for example, is leading the way with exploring how social media and e-rulemaking in general can be beneficial. DOT partnered with a group at Cornell University Law School to experiment with e-rulemaking and examine ways to improve the process. While it's too early for conclusions, a paper drawing on the project explained the role of bringing in new participants to the rulemaking process:

“A genuine commitment to broader public participation in rulemaking thus entails modifying implicit but powerful assumptions about the kind of participation that has value. The rulemaking community of practice must be willing to adapt to what rulemaking newcomers can provide—not by devaluing the kind of evidence and argument that sophisticated practitioners are accustomed to deploying, but by discovering the value added by experiential accounts of situated knowledge." (emphasis added)

This recommendation may meet some resistance. Some agency representatives at the ACUS meeting expressed pessimism about whether public input through social media could benefit the process. We disagree. Regulations.gov already provides an online portal for the public to comment on rulemaking. Social media can help refine the online commentary process by filtering discussions to highlight public experience and controversial points.

Look at the Reddit process, for example, that allows users to vote comments up or down. This crowdsourcing has to be well structured if it is going to be used for something that should be as substantive and deliberative as the rulemaking process, but it offers potential. It can be refined to encourage meaningful commentary, and it can open up federal agencies to input outside of the experts or interest groups that typically weigh in on rules. Exposing officials to new ideas without deluging them with comments might be a challenging balance to strike, but it is not so challenging that it outweighs the potential benefits of using social media in the dialogue of rulemaking.

Obama called his Reddit discussion "an example of how technology and the internet can empower the sorts of conversations that strengthen our democracy over the long run." It's time to bring that Reddit movement to federal regulations.