Regulatory reform promises to be a major agenda item in the new Congress. Support for improving the regulatory process appears to be bipartisan. In late December, President Obama called on government to be a “good partner” to the private sector and eliminate regulations that restrict innovation. Similarly, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently called on Congress to “stop the job-killing regulations.” Policymakers constantly struggle with finding the right balance for regulations that improve citizen welfare while not causing undue burdens on the private sector. Certainly some regulations are useful; however, some may be inefficient or harmful. In our current economic environment, it is critical that government better understand the impact of regulations on economic growth and innovation. As such, it is time to give policymakers better tools to get the job done.
Identifying the specific regulatory problems is the first step. In December, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee invited over 150 businesses and organizations to submit comments on which regulations they believe impede job growth. This is a good start, but a more systematic process is needed so that this data can be discovered and used by policymakers at all levels of government. In addition, with over 8,000 regulations issued by federal agencies every year, combing through all of this data is a labor-intensive process.
Currently interested parties can search, view and comment on agency rules, proposed rules, documents and notices on agency websites and on Regulations.gov, the federal government’s hub for making the regulatory process transparent and accessible to citizens. Regulations.gov was launched in 2003 as part of the eRulemaking initiative that was intended to streamline the Federal government rulemaking process that eliminated paper-based docket processes and centralized many databases into a single electronic system. While Regulations.gov provides a central location for finding and submitting comments on proposed regulations, it is less useful at collecting feedback from the public about the effectiveness and impact of regulations that have already been enacted.
To address this deficiency, the Obama administration should expand Regulations.gov to include a dynamic tool that will allow users to submit comments on existing government regulations that impact economic growth and innovation. Using Web 2.0 tools to collect feedback and encourage dialogue would help government identify which regulations have a negative impact on the economy and are potentially most in need of reform. Crowdsourcing, or using a large number of individuals from the community to solve a problem, is one way to harness technology to address labor-intensive challenges such as this. For example, the Department of Labor held a “Tools for America’s Job Seekers” challenge in which over 16,000 individuals reviewed and rated over 600 job search and career advancement tools in categories such as general job boards, niche tools, career tools, career exploration tools, and web 2.0. The results were compiled into a website, Careeronestop.org, which showcases the top tools in each category. A similar effort could be used to identify and rank regulatory issues.
As ITIF has written previously, the Obama Administration has made substantial progress in using technology to make government more transparent, participatory and collaborative but more can be done. Creating a platform for individuals, non-profits and businesses to submit ideas on regulatory reform could help identify important regulatory challenges faced by the private sector. Such a tool could help policymakers, journalists, and the public better understand the impact of regulations and respond appropriately. Moreover, such a tool should be designed to allow citizens to submit ideas regarding not just federal regulations, but state regulations which have a substantial impact on small businesses. State policymakers could then use the tool to engage in regulatory reform at the state level.
Obviously, such a system would face certain challenges as groups might try to game the feedback system to disproportionately represent their point of view. But these challenges have always existed and government can use data mining techniques to filter out the noise. And it would still be incumbent upon government leaders to identify the best ideas, not just the most popular ideas. But the need to better integrate public feedback on existing regulations is clear, and technology can be part of the solution.