Saturday, February 21, 2009

Transparency And Public Participation

Here's a little piece I wrote for the GW Political Science newsletter. There are also interesting essays by Sarah Binder, John Sides, and Jim Goldgeier, so go check it out...

In the months leading up to last year’s election, an independent, nonpartisan task force (of which I was a member) assessed the current status of policymaking in the United States federal bureaucracy, and articulated a set of recommendations about how the relevant processes might profitably be reformed. These recommendations specifically addressed issues of transparency and public participation in executive branch rulemaking, and were delivered to the transition team on the morning after President-elect Obama’s victory.

Transparency and public participation can both improve the quality of agency decision making and enhance the democratic legitimacy of policymaking by government officials who are not directly accountable to citizens through periodic elections. Although the regulatory system as it currently operates is relatively transparent and participatory, task force members identified a number of broad concerns about existing bureaucratic practices (see page vi of the report, which I have talked about before). These concerns include:

1. Generally speaking, agencies are neither transparent nor participatory at the earliest stages of their decision making processes.

2. When agencies do open themselves up for public participation, they oftentimes fail to allow for the benefits of dialogue and interaction between external stakeholders.

3. Agencies have not taken full advantage of information technology to make their policymaking processes more transparent.

With deficiencies such as these in mind, the task force developed a set of recommendations designed to bolster the transparency of and public participation in executive branch policymaking. These recommendations include (see pages vi and vii for a summary discussion):

1. Making available online all records that an agency or court has determined to be releasable under the Freedom of Information Act.

2. Adopting best practices for establishing rulemaking dockets when agencies begin working on new rules and promptly including in these dockets all relevant background information.

3. Reducing barriers to the use of federal advisory committees, which provide stakeholders with opportunities to interact directly with one another rather than solely with agency officials.

4. Creating a bureaucratic culture that promotes communications with external actors, so long as these communications are disclosed in agency dockets.

In the end, agency rulemaking will surely remain one of the most common and important forms of policymaking in the entire American government, with agencies issuing thousands of new rules on an annual basis. As these rules collectively exert enormous influence over, for example, the safety of our food, environment, and transportation system, it is crucial that the Obama administration take steps to address shortcomings in existing rulemaking practices. By adopting reforms such as those laid out in the task force report, President Obama can help to ensure that government regulations serve the American public effectively and are adopted through fair and open processes.

~Steve

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