Success of e-rulemaking project hard to demonstrate

Agencies will have a difficult time determining whether "e-rulemaking," an electronic-government project designed to grant the public greater influence over the process of writing federal regulations, is a success, participants in a panel discussion at American University said Thursday.

First, there is the challenge of defining success, the panelists agreed. For example, analysts might focus on whether the public's participation in the regulatory process increases as a result of e-rulemaking, said Jonathan Breul, a fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government and a former senior adviser at the Office of Management and Budget.

The e-rulemaking project, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, is one of 24 initiatives designed to make the federal government more accessible to citizens and enhance coordination among agencies. The initiative allows the public to view proposed federal rules and submit comments online. E-rulemaking also allows citizens to search for existing rules by visiting the Web site.

But panel participant Laura Langbein, a professor at American University's School of Public Affairs, questioned whether increased public participation would improve the process of designing federal rules. The quality of comments on proposed regulations is more important than the sheer volume, she said. If the comment process is too easy, Langbein noted, agencies would stop placing as much value on individual suggestions.

Agencies also could look at whether e-rulemaking reduces costs, Breul said. But Jim Tozzi, an adviser at the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness, a watchdog group established in 1996, cautioned that even financial savings would not necessarily indicate success.

If agencies are truly interested in fostering deliberation and writing thoughtful regulations, then they should devote more money to e-rulemaking, Tozzi said. According to Philip Harter, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, sound rules come about after extensive deliberation and input from a range of interest groups.

Because individual measures of success are difficult to develop, the panelists encouraged collecting a wide range of data on the e-government initiative and performing multiple analyses of the projects' benefits. The analyses would put teeth behind current anecdotal evidence on the benefits of the electronic government project, Breul said.

Sally Katzen, former director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at OMB and currently a governmental affairs professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the University of Michigan, questioned whether it is worth measuring e-rulemaking's success in the first place. Considering the challenges involved, analyses of the project's success could be quite expensive, time-consuming and, ultimately, uninformative, she said.

But OMB has urged agencies to present business cases for electronic government projects to justify continued funding. To do that, agencies must find a way of demonstrating that the initiative has produced desired results.

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