The Idea

Regulation Room is an experimental public rulemaking participation platform created by a cross-disciplinary group of Cornell researchers working collaboratively with the Department of Transportation (DOT). Regulation Room uses selected live rulemakings to experiment with human and computer support for public comment. The ultimate project goal is to provide guidance on design, technological, and human intervention strategies, grounded in theory and tested in practice, for effective Rulemaking 2.0 systems.

The project began in conversations with DOT officials about obstacles they encountered trying to set up a rulemaking blog. The site’s prominent affiliation with a research university also allows flexibility to experiment with designs and methods that could be difficult on an “official” government site. At the same time, agencies whose “live” rulemakings appear on Regulation Room are closely involved in selection of rules, identification of likely stakeholder communities, and other areas described below. For the DOT, this collaboration to discover effective strategies for Web 2.0-enabled rulemaking is the latest chapter in more than a decade of leadership in technology-supported rulemaking.

The Work

At the core of the project is an experimental online public learning and participation platform which supports research in using social media outreach, web design, and facilitative moderation techniques to achieve broader, better public participation in “live” (i.e., ongoing) federal rulemakings. An example of what is now being called “socially intelligent computing,” the Regulation Room system comprises an evolving mix of human, automated, and computer-assisted elements. These elements support knowledge acquisition and creation by users, individually and collectively. It is one of the first instances of the second generation of federal e-rulemaking, “Rulemaking 2.0.”

Early results give some cause for optimism about the open-government potential of Web 2.0-supported rulemaking. But significant challenges remain. Broader, better public participation is hampered by 1) ignorance of the rulemaking process; 2) unawareness that rulemakings of interest are going on; and 3) information overload from the length and complexity of rulemaking materials. No existing, commonly used Web services or applications are good analogies for what a Rulemaking 2.0 system must do to lower these barriers. To be effective, the system must not only provide the right mix of technology, content, and human assistance to support users in the unfamiliar environment of complex government policymaking; it must also spur them to revise their expectations about how they engage information on the Web and also, perhaps, about what is required for civic participation.

The Brains

The site was created and the project is run by a cross-disciplinary group of faculty and students, the Cornell eRulemaking Initiative (CeRI), at Cornell University. CeRI researchers develop the theories, generate the hypotheses, and prioritize the inquiries that ultimately determine Regulation Room design decisions and operating protocols. They summarize the public discussion that occurs on the site during the official comment period and submit that summary, through the federal e-rulemaking portal, as a formal comment in the rulemaking. The private character of Regulation Room avoids some of the legal and organizational challenges agencies face in operating a Rulemaking 2.0 site.

The Design

Regulation Room is purposefully designed to include elements that could make rulemaking more transparent, participatory, and collaborative. After a rule closes, the research team works to design a new version for the next proposed rule. These revisions are an important element of the research, as iterations are driven by
experiences, user feedback, and features specific to the current rule. We make previous version both separate and accessible to preserve the history for research purposes.

The Code

Regulation Room is built on WordPress 3+, a popular open-source blogging tool that has evolved into a full online publishing platform. We have added several custom elements, many of which are open-source plug-ins. These include Issuu, which allows uploaded rulemaking documents to look like a printed document with animated page-flip options. The most important open-source plug-in, substantively, is, which allows comments to be attached to specific sections of a blog post or document. Other tools used in Regulation Room: AddThis, dropbox, bbpress, Flowplayer, Issuu, Google Search & Analytics, StatsPress, Facebook, Twitter.

Regulation Room is designed for a display of 1024×728 pixels or more. It works best with recent versions of Internet Explorer (especially 8 and 9; 7 is also supported), Firefox, Chrome, and Safari. If you have any display or browser problems, please contact us.