THE LATEST: On February 14, 2022, Democracy Forward again provided feedback on the continuing efforts of the General Services Administration to improve the customer experience for those who rely on interactions with the federal government to obtain information and benefits. This comment provides an example of “ways in which the earlier lack of such information led to a significant retrenchment in public access to crucial information, and lend support for the importance of collecting information going forward” so government services can be made “more efficient“, users can be “empowered to navigate government services more easily themselves” and the frequency with which “redesigned customer experiences are necessary to ensure public access” can be reduced.

BACKGROUND

Under the Trump administration’s management, a federal website intended to provide the public with increased access to the process of agency rulemaking has instead seen changes that result in reduced transparency and functionality for the average user. Regulations.gov” has long been the primary means for the general public to access, learn about, and provide feedback on regulations proposed by federal agencies. The website also serves as a resource for public interest organizations to track the status of various rulemakings and research the public comments proposed rules garner.

The new Regulations.gov website updated for 2021 no longer includes functionalities that were available on the prior version of the site. Conceived but underfunded during the Trump administration, the resulting website has a more difficult web user experience that makes it harder for an average person to search for an e-docket, review public comments (which can hit hundreds of thousands), sign up for docket email alerts, or effectively use the Regulations.gov API, among other now missing features.

The lack of previously available features on the new version of the website hinders the ability of individuals, academics, and public interest groups to fully research and participate in federal rulemaking. Organizations, for example, rely on public comments to help inform them on what feedback an agency received, and may have addressed, during the rulemaking process. Since complex rulemakings may have tens or even hundreds of thousands of comments submitted by advocates, lobbyists, or individuals, it is critical for the primary platform that the public reads and leaves these comments on to be easily accessible for transparency.

“The Trump administration underfunded the redesign of Regulations.Gov and neglected to follow the government’s own Playbook to engage with the public and groups like ours that rely on the website. The result is a cumbersome public-facing user experience that makes access to agency rulemaking dockets more difficult. We urge GSA, with the help of USDS, to take immediate steps to ensure the public can reasonably participate in the rulemaking process on Regulations.Gov.”

— Samara Spence, Democracy Forward Senior Counsel

After exhausting the website’s feedback form and finding limited transparency about the former administration’s process for updating the website, we sent a letter listing our concerns with the current Regulations.gov to the General Services Administration alongside Public Citizen, the Georgetown Law Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, the National Health Law Program, the National Center for Youth Law (NYCL), Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

This broad coalition of public interest groups agree that the changes made to Regulations.gov make research, legal, and advocacy work more difficult and call on Biden’s GSA to address Trump-era underfunding and neglect of diverse user experiences when redesigning the website.

Last Updated: February 15, 2022
October 2019 - Summer 2020

Website Changes Begin.

Responsibility of Regulations.gov is transferred to GSA in October 2019, with 14 months to complete replacement. The original website was redirected to a Beta version for several days of the week in summer 2020. Anecdotally, members of the public expressed frustration on blogs and Twitter with the Beta site’s poor search functionality and lack of usable information on comment lists. Staff members at Democracy Forward and other partner organizations contacted GSA at various times with feedback and GSA staff acknowledged that they had received similar sentiments.

February 2021

New Regulations.gov entirely replaces the old version.

As of February 18, 2021, the Beta version was finalized as the new Regulations.Gov, entirely replacing the old version, while addressing none of the Beta version’s significant shortcomings.

May 2021

We sent our first letter to GSA.

September 2021

GSA acknowledges concerns.

GSA acknowledged concerns and invited a variety of public interest organizations to preview potential new Regulations.gov features. GSA did not specify if it intends to prioritize the usability review and fix the substantial flaws.

November 2021

Democracy Forward files comment encouraging prioritization of user experience in design of public-facing databases.

In a comment submitted to the Federal Chief Data Officer Council and GSA, Democracy Forward encouraged the government to make public user experience research and human-centered design principles a priority in all public-facing databases.

Samara Spence

Senior Counsel

Litigating challenges to unlawful actions, abuses of power, and threats to democracy on behalf of those who are harmed.

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Aman George

Senior Counsel & Legal Policy Director

Challenging unlawful actions and abuses of power related to the environment, healthcare, and good governance.

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