Five years ago, Congress enacted the Government Paperwork Elimination Act requiring federal agencies to provide the public with the option of submitting, maintaining and disclosing information electronically by Oct. 21, 2003. The E-Government Act of 2002 further requires that public comments should be accepted “by electronic means.”
Tuesday, the General Accounting Office (GAO) said the government had achieved mixed results in reaching those goals.
“Unfortunately, the public remains more than a mouse click away from submitting comments on proposed federal regulations,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R.-ME), chair of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. “I’m encouraged by the steps the government has taken, especially with the introduction of Regulations.gov. But it’s still difficult to navigate through the tangled online regulatory Web sites of individual agencies.”
The Regulations.gov site was created earlier this year, but the site has seen little traffic from the public. According to the GAO, the site contains 91 percent of the government’s proposed regulations open for comment, but it has not been widely advertised to the public and most agency sites fail to link to it.
The GAO also said the low number of public submissions could primarily be blamed on confusing terminology by some federal agencies to describe their links to proposed rules and limited search capabilities on other government sites.
“The E-Government Act requires that the public be given a greater voice in the rulemaking process through use of the Internet,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (D.-CT), author of the law. “The GAO found slow and inconsistent progress towards that goal. The Regulations.gov site, although functional, is barely used. And the Environmental Protection Agency was found to have made the least progress of the major regulatory agencies, which raises questions about why the EPA was designated the lead agency for the Administration’s e-rulemaking initiative.”
The GAO report recommended that director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) should instruct agencies to provide a link to Regulations.gov on their Web sites to allow users to identify proposed rules open for comments and that the agencies should note in the preambles to the proposed rules the availability of Regulations.gov.