Information overload a potential problem for FDMS

Government officials always knew the Federal Docket Management System would give citizens easy, one-stop access to the thousands of existing and pending regulations each year.

But what they don't know is whether the new system, which could revolutionize the slow, bureaucratic pace of agency decision-making, will result in better rulemaking or leave agencies inundated with comments.

FDMS was launched in September as part of the second-generation rollout of Regulations.gov, the central repository for agency proposed rulemakings. The E-Government Act of 2002 called for the development of the online rulemakings Web site, and the administration had already tasked an interagency group led by EPA to work on e-rulemaking, one of the original 25 e-government initiatives. Regulations.gov was launched in January 2003.

FDMS gives users one place to search for and comment on newly proposed rules from across the government, providing all citizens opportunities to participate in the sometimes confounding agency rulemaking process.

Speaking at the Symposium on E-Rulemaking in the 21st Century yesterday, sponsored by the House Judiciary Committee, Oscar Morales, director of the e-rulemaking initiative at the Environmental Protection Agency, said that since September, FDMS has logged 3.8 million hits, 1 million page views and 100,000 unique visitors.

FDMS is a 'significant step in changing the way rulemakings in the United States are conducted,' Morales said.

Karen Evans, administrator for e-government and IT at the Office of Management and Budget, called FDMS a groundbreaking tool that will help give citizens an easy interface with the federal bureaucracy.

Evans said that the more than 150 agencies produce 8,000 new rules each year, with practically 500 regulations open for comment at any time.

While not every agency is using the system now, Evans said OMB expects all major agencies to use FDMS in the first part of fiscal 2007, with compliance a part of the e-government portion of the President's Management Agenda scorecard.

'We view [the e-rulemakings process] as one of our key initiatives in dealing with the citizens,' Evans said.

But one problem with providing such easy access is managing expectations, according to Evans and others. It is unclear whether providing for and receiving volumes of comments from anyone with the time and energy to participate will result in a better rule.

'One of the questions we asked is, 'If you get more comments, does that mean it's a better rule?'' Evans said. 'The goal here is not to measure the number of comments that come in, but our goal really is the outcome' and having a good rule.

Don Arbuckle, deputy administrator for information and regulatory affairs at OMB, said that once an agency is submitting and receiving data from FDMS, it needs to find a way to delineate between the comments that are relevant to the proceeding and those that are not.

Arbuckle noted that OMB constantly receives Freedom of Information Act requests from retirees and prisoners and said agencies should expect a mountain of comments from individuals who may not add much substance.

'Agencies need to find and develop technology that helps them sort through and identify the comments they receive,' he said.

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