How the federal government could “go social”

I just has one of those meta-media moments. Today, Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media was the guest on NPR’s Talk of the Nation Science Friday radio show. The topic was 2008 In Social Media.

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.

5 thoughts on How the federal government could “go social”

  1. Hey there! Thanks for a very interesting post (found you through your posting it on Twitter). Couldn’t agree more re:using social media for rulemaking. In fact, we’re looking at that very much right now. Your post provides some intriguing new mechanisms, too. Much of what we’re doing now is partly to learn these tools so we can apply them well to policymaking of all types.

    As for EPA’s site being a mess, well, to some extent I won’t disagree. But remember it’s a very complex agency with a zillion and one topics.

    Oh, one favor: could you please correct the link to my Twitter? It’s http://twitter.com/levyj413

  2. Annotation that works is a feature missing from the web. The Django Book does a nice job gathering notes, questions, etc., in a similar fashion to News Mixer (my baby) on technical documentation.

    The WikiPedia does a nice job of hiding the chaos of a community editing a document by collecting dissent/comments/whatever in the Talk Pages about an article:

    Re: your recent tweet: Since this information is all in the public domain, I don’t see why an enterprising geek or two couldn’t write a mashup to put an annotation layer over this information.

  3. I agree with Jeffrey. We in gov’t have rules protecting citizen’s privacy but which also prevent a lot of interaction. These rules need to be updated to support the web as a platform for citizen involvement.

  4. Some excellent points – actually Jeffrey and I had also both come across this excellent post with an analysis of the approach taken by http://change.gov: http://blog.sunlightfoundation.com/2008/12/03/yes-we-canuse-comments-web-services-on-government-web-sites/ – discussing effective ways to allow comment and interaction. There is huge potential in social-media approaches in government, which allows responsiveness, allows the public and stakeholders a voice, and allows them to feel empowered, yet also reducing potential for abuse of the system.

  5. Pingback: The future of social media, including in the federal government « New Media Team

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