Opening Statements

Isn't It Ironic? FCC's New Website Comes Short on Communication

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In an irony perhaps only lawyers can appreciate, the Federal Communications Commission’s newly revamped, state-of-the-art website has, according to one expert, a major communications flaw: Information on the agency’s rule-making is as buried as a pirate’s treasure.

The online location of FCC rules under consideration is simply “not obvious to the nonspecialist,” says University of Pennsylvania law professor Cary Coglianese, who authored a study (PDF) about federal agencies’ use of electronic media in the rule-making process. Similarly, proposed air pollution rules—the subject of recent controversy for the Obama administration—were “nowhere to be found” on the website of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Although we’re long past the days of lawyers and other interested parties dusting off the Federal Register to comment on proposed regulations, it remains just as hard for ordinary citizens to participate in the process because, according to Coglianese, federal agencies bury details of proposed rules in obscure places online.

“Websites are being designed to serve the agencies’ existing customer base engaged in the so-called top tasks,” such as licenses or permits, contact information or FAQs, he explains. Only 14 percent of the agencies that write rules most frequently include a page displaying rules that are open for public comment. Only 30 percent contain a dedicated link soliciting public comments. As a result, these websites exacerbate imbalances in democratic participation, with only lawyers or paid specialists knowing how to comment online, he says.

But because regulations carry significant economic and social consequences, agencies should consider rule-making among their top tasks, says Coglianese. “Unelected officials are setting binding law, sometimes with penalties and criminal sanctions.”

Commissioned by the Administrative Conference of the United States, the July study includes recommendations for enhancing the digital accessibility of rule-making. For example, the study suggests that federal agencies create dedicated webpages, easily accessible from the front page, that display all rules open for public comment, much as congressional websites detail bills that the official is sponsoring.

Until now, government websites and their design have been “a bit of a Wild West,” Coglianese notes. “But this administration recognizes the need for clearer strategies and is conducting a governmentwide review of website design. This study couldn’t be coming at a better time.”

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