Before federal agencies can adopt new regulations, a built-in step opens the proposed regulation to public comment. The agency in question has to consider every comment, concern, and idea it receives before deciding what to do next. The goal is wholly democratic—to involve citizens in making rules that will affect them. But what happens when the public isn’t effectively engaged? When the government isn’t reaching out enough to involve the people?
It Takes a Multidisciplinary, Collaborative Team
Cynthia R. Farina, Law, works to address the public participation problem through the use of new technologies. Farina is one of the principal investigators of the Cornell eRulemaking Initiative (CeRI), a cross-disciplinary group of Cornell researchers that currently includes Claire Cardie, Computer Science/Information Science; Dan Cosley, Communication/Information Science; Susan Fussell, Communication/Information Science; Sally Klingel, International Labor Relations; Gilly Leshed, Information Science; and Mary Newhart, Law. A shifting group of postdoctorate, graduate, masters, and undergraduate students, some of whom work on the project through an e-government clinic, also work with the faculty.
When President Barack Obama came into office in 2008, there was a big push from the White House to use technology to make government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative. With experience working on a national blue-ribbon committee on e-rulemaking, Farina saw where the federal government struggled to bring the rulemaking process online.
“A lot of the problems that the federal government had in creating its own portal came because they weren’t bringing together a cross-disciplinary group,” says Farina. “The technology people weren’t really talking to program people, and vice versa. It became clear how important it was for us to bring together a group of people with different kinds of expertise to solve these problems. That’s been CeRI’s distinctive approach.”
Cardie and Farina began CeRI in 2005 as a National Science Foundation–funded project to develop natural language processing tools for comment management in rulemaking. Today, it has broadened to include much more, with the “primary goal of making it possible for more people who are affected by important policy choices to understand what’s going on and to participate meaningfully in the process,” says Farina.
The group created SmartParticipation, a set of online participation platforms including RegulationRoom (launched in March 2010), which allows people to read up and comment on actual forthcoming regulations. Initially developed as part of a partnership with the Department of Transportation (DOT), RegulationRoom received an Open Government Leading Practices Award from the White House. So far, people have been able to comment on real rules, including possible new consumer debt collection protections proposed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and air travel accessibility policies proposed by the DOT.
“This collaboration across disciplines enables us to do something that has stymied other open-government online participation efforts.”
Farina says that she brings an understanding of government rulemaking practices and administrative law to CeRI. She describes herself as being on the “action research side” of the project. She’s out making connections and listening to what policymakers and stakeholders want in an online public engagement platform. “I’m looking for the next discussion, the next government or civil society group partner, to provide us with an opportunity to try out or test something different,” she says.
“From the outward-facing perspective, RegulationRoom is a functioning, commercial-quality site that provides really innovative public participation opportunities in real regulatory proposals,” says Farina. “But inwardly facing, it’s just another kind of laboratory. I try to keep the ‘lab’ stocked with good projects.”
The CeRI researchers are hard at work on many projects to improve and expand the SmartParticipation platforms. Currently, Brian McGuinness and Liz Murnane, both Information Science PhD candidates, working with Cosley, are testing design tweaks to the commenting system that would encourage users to transition from only reading (“lurking”) to actually commenting. Murnane is also examining how the system could predict people’s likelihood of engagement, based on an analysis of personality types.
Jon Park, another Information Science PhD candidate, working with Cardie, is developing natural language programs in order to flag comments that make claims without substantiation. Other students are working on design improvements for SmartParticipation’s unique moderator interface, used by student moderators trained in group facilitation techniques, to support more deliberative discussion by commenters.
Farina says that the next step is to push the platform further out into the world. She is most concerned with encouraging various governmental entities and civil society organizations to use technology in ways that produce more informed, inclusive, and insightful public commenting. For example, the researchers are interested in partnering with local communities to figure out how best to integrate online discussion with existing “in-the-room” public commenting processes.
Online Knowledge-Building Communities
“I’m focused now on getting others to start using the platform in a wider variety of policymaking contexts,” says Farina. These might include policy discussions within membership organizations, or among groups of experts. “Broader use will push further innovation in design and operating practices. For us, as researchers, these different contexts can open up new sets of questions about building, moderating, and supporting deliberative online knowledge-building communities.”
If there is a group best suited to answering such questions, it’s CeRI, says Farina. “The really remarkable thing about this group of people is that there’s a lot of respect for each other’s disciplinary knowledge,” says Farina. “This collaboration across disciplines enables us to do something that has stymied other open-government online participation efforts. We are systematically devising solutions to the problem of how to bring underrepresented voices into policymaking processes, in a way that participants and decision makers alike experience as effective and meaningful.”