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Four Steps Federal Agencies Need to Take for Better Public Engagement

   

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For years at the Center for Science and Democracy (CSD), we have championed the need for federal agencies to adopt clear and equitable practices for engaging with the public.

The public’s ability to weigh in on new rules and regulations proposed by agencies lies at the heart of a strong democracy. It offers a critical mechanism through which members of the public can have a direct say in the decisions our government is making. And it affords federal agencies the chance to consider the perspectives of people with diverse knowledge, backgrounds, and skillsets.

We at CSD recently sent the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) a public comment outlining our top recommendations for how federal agencies can improve their processes for engaging the public in rulemaking processes, and how they might more effectively reach out to underserved communities.

As we noted, government officials have too often failed to include underserved communities at the policymaking table or to meaningfully incorporate lived experience or tribal ecological knowledge into policymaking. To improve stakeholder engagement with underserved communities and to make agency rulemaking more equitable and just, agencies need to remove barriers that prevent community voices from being heard.

We also noted that, for those living in historically marginalized communities to be able to effectively contribute their input, they need to be able to easily access information about federal policy actions on issues as disparate as air pollution standards, student loan debt, and climate change impacts. As my colleague Darya Minovi has previously stated, environmental justice leaders have long advocated for such public participation and community engagement.

Several studies suggest that trust in government is strongly associated with whether the public feels that government is responsive to their feedback. A major pathway through which federal agencies obtain feedback from the public is the public comment process.

Public comments offer an opportunity for anyone—including individuals and organizations—to submit feedback on proposed rules. Federal agencies are required by law to read and consider these comments. This process can raise the profile of a particular issue. It can help amplify the voices of underserved communities. And it can show policymakers whether a proposal has broad support or is wildly unpopular.

Public comments are also an issue of civic virtue. Aside from voting, they represent one of the best tools the public has to directly contribute to and participate in our democracy. Below are our top four suggestions for how agencies can improve public participation in rulemaking:

Federal agencies’ webpages should offer a one-stop shop for all proposed policy actions. On most federal webpages today, it is far too difficult for the public to find out about new proposed rules. Even for us at UCS, we tend to learn about new rules through a myriad of sources such as news articles, social media, partner meetings, and agency newsletters. In our comment to OMB, we emphasize that people should be able to go to an agency’s website and easily find all proposed rules and policy actions about which the agency is seeking public input.
Public comment notices should be transparent in documenting all changes that went into the decisionmaking processes for a proposed rule. OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA)—the main White House office that reviews agency rules, regulations and certain other policy documents—has a long history of using their authority to carry out anti-science actions against the wishes of agency scientists and the public. Specifically, we’ve documented 19 cases in which OIRA took the digital equivalent of a red pen to inappropriately strike out major scientific information or science-based policy actions from an agency rule. This practice can invalidate years, sometimes decades, of careful work carried out by federal scientists to collect data, conduct research, and write reports that include the best-available science and how best to use that information in policymaking. If government agencies are serious about their commitment to transparency, they should release red-line edits made by OIRA officials (and others), along with other types of research, sources, or correspondence agency officials used to draft the rule.
Increase the use of plain-language summaries. If you’ve ever tried to submit a public comment to the Federal Register or regulations.gov, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that the whole thing is written in a very technical manner and that it uses a confusing format. Studies have suggested that plain-language summaries can help members of the public navigate these difficulties, making the information far more accessible. Plain-language summaries are becoming a staple of the academic scientific community in peer-reviewed papers and scientific conferences for this exact reason. Federal scientists are starting to more frequently employ them, such as at the Office of Science in the Department of Energy, to better communicate with the public about their work. Government agencies should follow the example set by academic and federal scientists and increase the use of plain-language summaries in public comment notices.
Ensure that translation services are offered when engaging with communities where multiple languages are spoken. Public comment notices, public hearings, and other forms of community engagement need to be issued in the languages most widely spoken in the communities most affected by the polices under consideration. The issue of language justice is of major importance for underserved communities. For example, the community group Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), in conjunction with Earthjustice and Sierra Club, successfully pressed the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to adopt a strong rule in 2021 requiring that translation and interpretation services be offered during public engagement sessions on environmental permitting decisions.

At its core, democracy is a system of government beholden to its people. This vision of self-governance, central to the US federal government and the tenants of the US Constitution, requires accountability, equity, and public participation.

At UCS, we applaud OMB’s efforts to gather input from the public about this critical issue. In turn, we urge OMB to use this feedback to help build a framework to guide how all agencies can best engage with the public on policymaking.  It’s a wonky issue, but one that will have huge consequences on how the public can participate in agency rulemaking.

We at UCS will continue to monitor and press OMB to adopt commonsense, evidence-based practices that give all people–including underserved community members–a real voice in how our government works.

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