Obama regulatory affairs chief wins plaudits for upgraded website

Long-in-the-works improvements to the White House-managed website Regulations.gov made public on Tuesday are drawing praise from advocates from both camps in the ongoing debate over how heavily the government should regulate.

Cass Sunstein, administrator of the Office of Regulatory and Information Affairs, said in a blog post Tuesday that “Regulations.gov has launched a major redesign, including innovative new search tools, social media connections and better access to regulatory data. The result is a significantly improved website that will help members of the public to engage with agencies and ultimately to improve the content of rules.”

The upgraded central portal continues the regulatory review initiative President Obama launched in a January 2011 executive order, Sunstein said, and also is in keeping with the Obama administration’s Open Government Partnership National Action plan to engage the public through increased government transparency.

In technical changes, the new site allows users to better download and repackage data and text because it incorporates application programming interfaces. It also offers a more user-friendly search engine and sorting terms.

The site now is organized so users can browse regulations in 10 major categories, such as aerospace and transportation and banking and financial. This change “moves us closer to meeting the recent Jobs Council recommendation to enable regulations to be searched by North American Industry Classification System” codes used by federal agencies, Sunstein wrote. Lay users can click on a tab labeled “learn” to get an overview of the U.S. regulatory process.

Regulatory specialists contacted by Government Executive were pleased with the new site.

“This is an improvement in terms of public access and transparency,” said Amit Narang, regulatory policy advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch project. “Public Citizen now encourages OIRA to direct their energies toward releasing important public health and safety protections currently languishing under OIRA review well beyond the 90-day limit so that the public can have their chance to comment on those rules and participate in the process.”

Rosario Palmieri, vice president for infrastructure, legal and regulatory policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, said, “realizing the goal of a one-stop shop for regulatory compliance for small manufacturers is an important one. This announcement brings us closer to that goal, but it is still only a step in that process and more needs to be done.” The association, he added, continues to be concerned that “the cumulative burden of regulation is a significant cost for manufacturers. The added challenge for small companies is keeping up with an ever increasing and changing set of requirements.”

Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., chairman of the House Small Business Committee who challenged Sunstein’s approach to regulation during a hearing in September 2011, said: “I appreciate any efforts from the White House to help small businesses provide comment on and deal with complex federal regulatory compliance, but small businesses want action on the regulations themselves. Since Inauguration Day, the administration has imposed about 75 new major regulations with annual costs of $38 billion.

“Small businesses still cite regulations as their greatest barrier to growth,” he continued. “In addition to helping small firms navigate compliance with regulations, I would encourage the administration to actually pull back on many of the unnecessary regulations and comply with the Regulatory Flexibility Act, which will give small businesses some relief as they try to grow and create jobs in a stagnant economy.”

Katie Greenhaw, a regulatory policy analyst at the nonprofit OMB Watch, said: “Though the most obvious changes are cosmetic, they are important, and a lot of thought has been put into the site to improve usability.”

Though her group “hasn’t seen all the substantive changes we’d like to see, this sets the stage,” she added. An example is the 10 categories of regulations, which she says could be balanced with a more selective “what’s hot” feature. The “learn” tab, she said, provides a “fabulous overview of the regulatory process that will be helpful as a step toward pubic engagement.”