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Sunlight Foundation Debuts 'Docket Wrench' -- Track Federal Regulation Comments Online

New online tool follows influence on lesser-known area of policy making

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

January 31, 2013

Contact: Liz Bartolomeo 202-742-1520 x226

WASHINGTON, DC — The Sunlight Foundation launches a new influence-tracking website today that uncovers trends in the federal rulemaking process. Docket Wrench is a searchable database and visualization tool that explores the federal rulemaking system, monitoring comments from 10,000 organizations across 300 federal agencies.

The rulemaking process starts after Congress passes a bill and the president signs it into law. Docket Wrench is a useful, online tool to show how federal agencies are fine-tuning public policy — and the groups trying to influence the regulatory process. While these proposed rules and public comments are posted on Regulations.gov, Docket Wrench goes a step further and allows anyone to see who is commenting and if there are any similarities among the proposals.

“Influence doesn’t stop at K Street. Every day, corporations, interest groups and advocates submit thousands of comments to proposed regulations posted by the U.S. government,” said Tom Lee, Sunlight Labs Director. “While some public affairs activities, like lobbying and campaign contributions, are extensively researched, influence on the regulatory process has, until now, gone largely unexplored.”

Watch a brief Docket Wrench tutorial on Sunlight Academy or attend our free training webinar on Tuesday, Feb. 5 at 1:00 pm ET.

Using Docket Wrench

To start exploring the site, enter an issue topic or organization name in the search box to find where the query appears in public comments, rules and notices or a federal docket. Data on the site refreshes daily via the Regulations.gov API.

On Docket Wrench, users can search more than 3.5 million regulatory documents to see how companies, interest groups, NGOs and individuals submit public comments on proposed rules, with many also linked to their profile on Sunlight’s Influence Explorer. Docket Wrench’s visualization feature groups together textually similar documents to help find evidence of form letter campaigns by those submitting comments.

Check out the popular searches on the Docket Wrench home page or explore this one about school lunch programs or this rule about air quality standards.

Every rulemaking docket has its own page on the site. There you can get a graphical overview of the docket, drill down into the rules and notices it contains and read the comments on those rules.

Sunlight Labs, the in-house technical department of Sunlight, developed the visualization tool. Once you select a proposed rule, the tool displays similar comments within a rulemaking docket to identify commonly used comment language, and to catch form letter writers in the act.

Docket Wrench is open source. Get the code that powers the website at GitHub.

Applying Docket Wrench

Docket Wrench is a valuable tool for those looking to see how proposed rules become federal regulations. The Sunlight Reporting Group used Docket Wrench in recent investigations including:

By the Numbers

Federal agencies proposing rules — about 300

Federal agencies with the most comments in Docket Wrench:


  • Environmental Protection Agency — 454,301

  • Fish and Wildlife Service — 316,225

  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration — 207,816

  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — 206,387

  • Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services — 167,122

Federal agencies with the least comments:


  • Federal Law Enforcement Training Center — 1

  • National Communications System — 1

  • Air Force Department — 1

  • Information Security Oversight Office — 2

  • Appraisal Subcommittee — 2

Groups making public comments — more than 10,000

Regulatory documents — more than 3.5 million

Data powering the site — over 3 terabytes

The Hewlett Foundation supported the development of Docket Wrench. Sunlight thanks the EPA eRulemaking team, which runs Regulations.gov, for their help providing access to federal regulatory data.

The Sunlight Foundation is a non-partisan non-profit that uses cutting-edge technology and ideas to make government transparent and accountable. Visit http://SunlightFoundation.com to learn more about Sunlight’s projects, including http://PoliticalPartyTime.org and http://influenceexplorer.com.