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Toward Better Access to Regulations

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Every day in Washington, DC, thousands of government officials are at work writing, revising, and publishing regulations affecting everything from food safety, to personal finances, to the environment and beyond.

But as our Reporting team reports today, with the help of data crunched by Sunlight Labs, the rulemaking process, though ostensibly a public one that anyone can participate in, is largely a rarified one. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

This year 89% percent of the regulations that drew at least one comment received 100 or fewer, according to an analysis of information available on regulations.gov -- the government's one-stop hub for information about the regulatory process -- that we made using Docket Wrench, a new tool in development by our Labs team. Only 102 regulatory proposals drew 1,000 comments or more.

In contrast, the regulations that drew the most participation were largely concerned with controversial matters that are patrolled by groups with well organized constituencies eager to act when prompted by an action alert. For example, the regulation that received the most comments—more than 63,000—concerned contraceptive benefits under the Affordable Care Act. Much of the action appeared to be organized by Catholic groups opposed on religious grounds.

We are hoping that Sunlight’s Docket Wrench, which is based on data collected by regulations.gov, will draw more people in to the process. Our Scout tool also offers alerts on regulations as published in the Federal Register.

However, our tools can only be as good as the data underlying them. While a long list of federal agencies participate in regulations.gov, technically independent agencies are not required to do so. These include such high profile agencies as the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Federal Elections Commission. While these agencies individually may post the comments they receive on pending regulations, very few have an “API” that allows developers to pull the data into a new interface as Labs does with Docket Wrench. Without the participation of these agencies in regulations.gov, our new Docket Wrench tool will be limited.

In addition, the data collected at regulations.gov is often imperfect. There’s little standardization of fields, such as “employer,” that would allow a user to easily search for a particular entity. When our reporting group sought to find out, before the election, where the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was putting its regulatory efforts, we found ourselves limited because the data would not easily allow a thorough search on the name of the organization. Ideally each organization filing a comment should use unique corporate identifiers that would help make such searches comprehensive.

It should be mandatory that all of the federal agencies -- including the independent ones -- should participate in regulations.gov. Of course the agencies should receive the funding necessary to make this happen. If we can improve the data, that’s one step closer to improving participation.