Aug. 23, 2010

White House praises Cornell open government initiative

By partnering with a Law School-led group of Cornell researchers to make its rulemaking process more transparent, open and interactive, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has earned a Leading Practices Award from the White House Open Government Initiative.

In an announcement issued Aug. 12, the White House recognized federal agencies that "represent the very best of the best in Open Government Plans -- exemplary of the high levels of creativity and innovation that can be found in the open government activities of our federal agencies today."

The DOT was praised for its flagship initiative: RegulationRoom.org, an online environment designed and operated by the Cornell e-Rulemaking Initiative (CeRI) and hosted by the Legal Information Institute (LII). The CeRI team includes researchers from the Law School, Computing and Information Science, and the Scheinman Institute on Conflict Resolution at the ILR School. RegulationRoom provides consumer-friendly information about proposed new agency rules and engages the public in the rulemaking process.

The Open Government Directive, issued Dec. 8, 2009, called on executive departments and agencies to find new strategies for promoting open government, and to look for innovative ways to collaborate with academic researchers. Projects from across the federal government competed for the Leading Practices awards.

"Rulemaking is probably the single most important way the federal government makes domestic policy now," said Cynthia Farina, professor of law and a principal researcher in CeRI. "Congress passes statutes to deal with problems like health care or reform financial reform, but the working content of those programs is set by federal agencies. In a very real way, agencies share federal lawmaking power, and they exercise that power through rulemaking."

Rulemaking agencies are required by law to consider public comments and respond to them in a formal document when they announce a new rule -- making rulemaking the most transparent and participatory decision-making process the government uses, Farina said. The problem has been that many affected individuals and groups don't know about the process or effectively exercise their right to have their say in it.

RegulationRoom was designed to help agencies change this. The site, which is still evolving, provides easy-to-understand information about each rule, hosts interactive discussions for users, and simplifies the process for submitting comments to the agency.

Since its March 31 launch, RegulationRoom has posted two DOT rules for discussion and comment: a proposed ban on texting by commercial truck drivers (now under consideration) and proposed new protections for airline passengers (still open for comment). As of Aug. 18, the site had logged 24,155 visits by 18,178 unique visitors.

The White House award is "a welcome recognition of the commitment in DOT, from the secretary down, to broadening public participation in the rulemaking process," Farina said. "For us at RegulationRoom it's a very exciting acknowledgement that this is a really important open government project."