Agencies eye Twitter for help writing regulations

ADVERTISEMENT
Obama administration officials say the transformation is something they’d like to see.

“The federal government is working on some of the most advanced and engaging social media platforms and data programs that exist in the world,” Justin Herman, a social media manager at the General Services Administration, said at a workshop on Tuesday.

That technology, along with new ways of thinking about how regulations can be written, could present a sea change for regulatory agencies.

Before being enacted, almost all federal rules have to go through a sometimes lengthy process that allows the public, interest groups, affected businesses and other agencies to weigh in. Typically, an agency will publish its intention to issue a new rule in the Federal Register, where all executive branch actions are recorded, then collect comments for a number of months.

Social media, officials think, bring opportunities for all sorts of Americans to weigh in during that comment period. 

However, with the new technologies come additional obstacles of making sure people know what rules are under development. After all, most people don’t read the Federal Register every morning.

“Your average Joe doesn’t know about the process, doesn’t have the time to engage with it,” said Whitney Patross, an attorney with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau who worked to engage the public to develop new mortgage rules.

The federal government currently hosts regulations.gov, a website that allows the public to read through rules under consideration and leave a comment. The site, though sometimes full of bureaucratic jargon, aims to offer a “high quality, efficient and open rulemaking process,” according to Bryant Crowe, a program analyst with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who helped develop the site.

The website includes prominent links for people to post the regulation on Twitter, Facebook or in an email, which lets a regulation’s supporters and opponents publicize their thoughts and get their followers online to take notice.

Crowe said that Facebook is among the top five referring websites to regulations.gov, and people have come there from Facebook about 70,000 times.

Of course, even if the general public knows that a rule is under development, they might not always provide the useful comments. That's especially true for highly technical and controversial rules like those on the environment, which involve complicated scientific and economic calculations. 

But that doesn’t mean more of the general public shouldn’t be party to the conversation, officials maintained.

“I would think that some rulemakings are better suited to the use of social media than others,” Joel Kaufman, the associate general counsel at the Federal Communications Commission, said at the workshop at George Washington University's Regulatory Studies Center.

Agencies working on rules to protect consumers from abusive banks and other businesses, for instance, might be helped by reaching out to the public.

“Part of what social media is doing is lowering that barrier to participate,” said Ben Balter, who has worked with the Obama administration to open up data for the public. “So if there is a rulemaking that an agency actually goes out and makes that effort to educate the public about relevant issues and get subject matter expertise... that’s when the possibility for social media to lower the barrier to participate for otherwise non-participating parties.”

But just because using social media might not work all the time doesn’t mean agencies should always rule it out.

“Where it works it works great,” added Cynthia Farina, a professor at Cornell University Law School who has partnered with agencies to gather public comments through the Internet. “Don’t do it where it’s not the right context.”