Rulemaking in 140 Characters or Less: Social Networking and Public Participation in Rulemaking
Pace Law Review, January 2011
45 Pages Posted: 5 Nov 2010 Last revised: 10 Jul 2015
Date Written: November 3, 2010
Rulemaking - the process by which administrative agencies make new regulations - has long been a target for e-government efforts. The process is now one of the most important ways the federal government makes public policy. Moreover, transparency and participation rights are already part of its legal structure. The first generation of federal e-rulemaking involved putting the conventional process online by creating an e-docket of rulemaking materials and allowing online submission of public comments. Now the Obama Administration is urging agencies to embark on the second generation of technology-assisted rulemaking, by bringing social media into the process.
In this article we describe the initial results of a pilot Rulemaking 2.0 system, Regulation Room, with particular emphasis on its social networking and other Web 2.0 elements. (A companion article, Rulemaking 2.0, gives a more general overview of the project and is forthcoming in Miami Law Review). Web 2.0 technologies and methods seem well suited to overcoming one of the principal barriers to broader, better public participation in rulemaking: unawareness that a rulemaking of interest is going on. We talk here about the successes and obstacles to social-media based outreach in the first two rulemakings offered on Regulation Room. Our experience confirms the power of viral information spreading on the Web, but also warns that outcomes can be shaped by circumstances difficult, if not impossible, for the outreach effort to control.
There are two additional substantial barriers to broader, better public participation in rulemaking: ignorance of the rulemaking process, and the information overload of voluminous and complex rulemaking materials. Social media are less obviously suited to lowering these barriers. We describe here the design elements and human intervention strategies being used in Regulation Room, with some success, to overcome process ignorance and information overload. However, it is important to recognize that the paradigmatic Web 2.0 user experience involves behaviors fundamentally at odds with the goals of such strategies. One of these is the ubiquitousness of voting (through rating, ranking, and recommending) as "participation" online. Another is what Web guru Jacok Neilsen calls the ruthlessness of users in moving rapidly through web sites, skimming rather than carefully reading content and impatiently seeking something to do quickly before they move on. Neither of these behaviors well serves those who would participate effectively in rulemaking. For this reason, Rulemaking 2.0 systems must be consciously engaged in culture creation, a challenging undertaking that requires simultaneously using, and fighting, the methods and expectations of the Web.
Keywords: Administrative Law, Cyberspace Law, Legal Information and Technology, Risk Regulation & Policy
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