Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Information Technology and Public Commenting on Agency Regulations

Today is the day my latest article hits the proverbial newsstand. (Click here to access the article and click here to read the publisher's press release.) Along with a former student, Ben Daniels, I set out to get an idea of whether or not the public is likely to become more involved in government decision making in the age of the Internet. The idea is pretty simple. Websites bring agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection Agency, and Federal Communications Commission closer to us than ever. Now, with just a click of a mouse, we can access needed information and forms, as well as find out what these bureaucracies are up to in terms of regulating our lives and livelihoods. So they have built it...will we come?

This is obviously a huge question. So, to narrow it down, we picked one agency, the Department of Transportation. And we focused on one form of interaction between the agency and us, namely, public commenting on proposed regulations. You see, most of the time when government agencies propose to make changes in policy (like, say, increasing the fuel economy of SUVs), they have to allow for a public comment period (usually 60 days or so).

Back in 1998, the Department of Transportation moved its comment system on to the Internet. It used to be that you had to mail or fax your comments. Now you can submit them electronically. So has this change led more people to take advantage of this opportunity to get involved in government decision making?

Turns out the answer is "no." Ben and I looked at hundreds of regulations before and after the introduction of the online system. What we found were almost identical patterns of commenting in both periods of time. No more than 10% of the proposed regulations got more than 100 comments. Most got somewhere between 10 and 99, with a good number not receiving any at all.

The punch line? Americans' engagement with the government is probably not going to change, for better or for worse, as a result of innovations in information technology. That's the challenge we are laying down. Do we know if this conclusion holds outside of the agency and form of participation we looked at? Of course not. That's a task that now falls to future researchers. Hey, maybe I'll even do some of this research...just don't ask me to do it today!



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