Under the Hood of Online Civic Participation: Lessons from the Regulation Room

    •   Track 1
    • Presentation speakers
      • Dmitry Epstein, Cornell eRulemaking Initiative, Cornell Law School
      • Jackeline Solivan, E-Government Fellow, Cornell eRulemaking Initiative, Cornell Law School

    Video (starts at 8:25)

    Rulemaking, the process federal agencies use to make new health, safety, environmental, and other regulations, is one of the U.S. government’s most important policymaking methods. The federal agencies propose roughly 4,000 new rules each year. In 2002, the G. W. Bush administration published the E-Government Strategy, which included creation of an “online rulemaking management” system. The result was the building of a central, government-wide e-rulemaking portal, Regulations.gov. Reglations.gov is a first generation e-rulemaking system with an evolving set of search and notification features.

    On his first day in office, President Barack Obama issued an Open Government Memorandum to the heads of federal agencies. It directed them to use Web 2.0 tools to increase transparency, public participation and collaboration in their decision making. By the end of Obama’s first year in office, the White House had issued an Open Government Directive that emphasized using Web 2.0 tools to expand public involvement in federal decision making. These efforts are based on a strong assumption that there are technological solutions to many of the barriers to meaningful public engagement in policymaking.

    To date, the most prominent Obama Administration Web 2.0 participation projects have used platforms such as Ideascale, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to engage citizens in brainstorming and posing questions to government officials. Allegedly thousands have participated, it is unclear with what effect. The mixed success record of these efforts suggests that reliance primarily on technical solutions may be falling short of addressing the complexity of getting the public meaningfully and effectively engaged in policy deliberation.

    Here, we present Regulation Room (http://regulationroom.org/), an experimental open-government partnership between academic researchers and government agencies. The project is a socio-technical participation system that uses multiple technical and procedural methods to alert and effectively engage new voices in rulemaking. Initial results give cause for optimism but also caution that successful use of new technologies to increase participation in complex government policy decisions is more difficult and resource-intensive than many proponents expect. They suggest that physiological, social, and institutional factors play an equally, if not more pivotal, role in effective e-participation.