USDA rule proposal draws abundant online comments

If sheer numbers qualify electronic government applications as successful, then the
Agriculture Department is onto something.


Using the World Wide Web as its conduit, USDA set up a system to receive and post
comments on proposed organic produce and livestock standards. The public has participated
in record numbers in a process that usually attracts mostly well-funded, special-interest
groups.


The Web made all the difference, Agriculture Department officials said.


"We're receiving comments today from all sources at the rate of 200 a day,"
said Lee Keely, assistant to the associate administrator of USDA's Transportation and
Marketing Program, which designed the system. About half of all the comments are coming in
through the Web site at http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/rule.htm,
he said.


In less than nine weeks, USDA has gathered more than 8,000 comments.


Interest has been so great that Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman extended the comment
period to April 30 to let more people participate.


The popularity of organic foods and a new law requiring the federal government to set
organic food standards gave the department extra incentive to try out an electronic system
for gathering and analyzing public comments.


Unlike many electronic comment systems that other federal agencies have set up in
recent months, USDA's system integrates the comments received from the Web with scanned
paper documents that people mail or fax to Washington--and reposts them all on the Web.


The system's components are all brand-name products. The application software is
KeyFile 3.2, a document management repository from Keyfile Corp. of Nashua, N.H. KeyFile
runs on top of the Microsoft Windows NT operating system on a 200-MHz dual-processor
Compaq ProLiant 5000 server.


The electronic comment system has two Hewlett-Packard Co. HP ScanJet color scanners and
a fax server for processing comments mailed or faxed to the department. Agricultural
Marketing Service specialists can access all public comment documents from folders on
their Compaq Pentium desktop PCs, which run KeyFile client software.


"KeyFile is object-oriented, so any document can be reviewed simultaneously by
several people on the staff," said Dyson Richards, an integration specialist with RGS
Associates Inc. of Arlington, Va., the company which helped the agency set up the system.


The system's indexing capabilities let commodity specialists select and organize groups
of comments for distribution and review by other staff members.


The KeyFile software permits staff analysts and the public to view all comments almost
immediately after USDA receives them. The public also can run focused queries against the
comment database to find items that most interest them.


"The comments that come to us off the Web site are almost immediately posted back
to the Web site and are available for public query within hours or by the next day,"
Keely said.


Comments received by fax or postal mail take a bit longer to get posted on the Web
because the staff manually indexes the documents by topic and by the section of the rule
to which the comment applies, Keely said.


When people post comments to the proposed rule on the Web, they fill out a Web form
which asks the filers to identify themselves as farmers or consumers, for example, so that
USDA can use the data for later statistical analyses of the comments.


The department recently turned the Web administration portion of the system over to the
Commerce Department's National Technical Information Service.


Will Agriculture ever go back to the old method of inviting the public to a reading
room to pore over hundred-page documents?


Most unlikely, Keely said.


Still, Agriculture officials have a lot of evaluating to do before declaring the
electronic comment system an unqualified success, he said.


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