One listener who called in was Jeffrey Levy, web manager for the US Environmental Protection Agency. He asked O’Reilly how the federal government might be able to use social media to enhance governance and civic engagement.
…To be honest, I didn’t actually catch O’Reilly’s answer because my own mental gears immediately went into overdrive. I’ve been involved with covering environmental issues for nearly 20 years — and thus I’m a frequent user of the EPA Web site. And it’ll come as no surprise to anyone that the EPA site currently is one hellacious frustrating sprawling mess, offputting to professionals as well as citizens. (I assume Levy is working to improve that situation…)
But there is another side to how federal agencies interact with the public that goes beyond their own sites: the regulatory process. Every proposed federal regulation must be published in the Federal Register. (Trust me, it’s really ugly. You definitely don’t want to read this stuff unless you have to — yet another strategy to keep citizens at arms length from government.)
Every proposed regulation must allow for a public comment period. That’s where social media might fit in…
|Fairly typical instructions in the Federal Register for submitting public comments for a proposed federal regulation.
This just screams: “STAY AWAY!!!!”
Theoretically, the regulatory public comment period is open to anyone. But in practice it’s really a process for insiders: involved parties, lobbyists, organized advocates and activists, and other groups who already know what’s in the works for a given regulation.
To “regular folks” who might care about or be affected by a proposed regulation, it’s pretty hard to even learn that a regulation has been proposed and what it might mean — let alone submit a comment in time for it to be considered by regulators before the rule is finalized.
There’s gotta be an easier way for people to engage in the federal rulemaking process. And maybe social media could help. I’m intrigued by how Medill’s recently unveiled NewsMixer project uses Facebook Connect to add social functionality and to news stories. Specifically, people can raise questions associated with specific paragraphs within stories (a kind of annotation) and also discuss the stories in various ways.
Wouldn’t it be helpful if people could participate in the rulemaking process like that? What if the federal register was available in a newsmixer-style interface that made it easy to make annotation-style queries about specific points in a proposed regulation, and discuss the proposed rule with other interested people?
I’m sure there could be a way to connect this kind of interface with Twitter and Friendfeed too, as well as generate rule-specific feeds that could be used in mashups. I haven’t thought this all through yet.
But if any part of our federal government could use more streamlining and social functionality, it’s the rulemaking process.
What do you think? Please comment below.