Designing the participatory experience

Interface design of online participatory systems can subtly (and not so subtly) influence whether and how members of the public will engage with policymaking's deliberative process. This project is seeking design elements that promote more informed, more broad-based, and deeper participation on and other online deliberative platforms. One current study looks at how signaling community norms and expectations through action prompts may enhance participation. Conducted through Amazon Mechanical Turk, this study tests three conditions: generic prompt, community norms specific prompt, and content specific prompt. Future research will look into how smaller, simpler steps that newcomers might initially take may reduce the apparent effort of engaging.

We investigate those questions by using a large scale controlled experiment focused on deliberation of an actual campus policy change.  The practical goal of the project is to test platform features and facilitation procedures for collaborative drafting of policy inputs by the members of the public.

Drafting Room Experiment

The Drafting Room experiment is testing the boundaries of effective online civic engagement. Is it possible to go beyond soliciting feedback from individual members of the public and help them move towards collaboratively producing effective policy inputs? Specifically, we are focused on three main questions:

  • What psychological and experiential factors predict different levels of civic engagement in online deliberation of policy?
  • What effect does engagement in online deliberation of public policy have on people’s perceptions of the decision-making processes and institutions?
  • What effect do different facilitative interventions have on co-production of policy inputs in an online environment?

We investigate those questions by using a large scale controlled experiment focused on deliberation of an actual campus policy change. The practical goal of the project is to test platform features and facilitation procedures for collaborative drafting of policy inputs by the members of the public.

Framing for participation

One of the main challenges with online civic engagement in policymaking is breaching the wall of skepticism and distrust, which has become common in developed democracies. There is a significant body of literature addressing this issue within the context of traditional, mass media, but there is still a lot to unpack in the context of personalized, new media environments. Tackling this challenge, this study looks into the framing of calls for engagement on social media studies. Currently we are conducting an experiment using Facebook's advertising engine. Controlling for gender and political orientation, we present Facebook users with either thematically or episodically framed calls to action crafted with less than 90 characters.

Predictors of effective online civic engagement

Policymaking bodies have limited financial, human, computational, and temporal resources for recruiting members of the public to participate in online deliberations surrounding rulemaking processes. Thus in order to make the most efficient and effective use of these resources, this project is an effort to improve outreach strategies by identifying people who are likely to be highly motivated and capable contributors. Its aim is to develop natural language processing techniques that can analyze text online to detect cognitive and experiential characteristics that are positively or negatively associated with a person's willingness and ability to participate effectively.

To date, experiments have concentrated on recruiting people from the social media platform Twitter by analyzing the text that Twitter users post. An initial experiment in Spring 2012 examined whether text similarity between rulemaking concepts and a Twitter user's bio, tweets, or some combination was correlated with that person's willingness to participate during an open comment period on CeRI's

Current experiments continue to explore predictors of an individual's readiness for engagement. In particular, the focus is on developing methods for:

  • identifying topical expertise and interest according to online behavior and content
  • determining linguistic markers of psychological characteristics known to motivate engagement such as self-efficacy and certain personality traits.

Additionally, we investigate whether outreach messaging can be crafted to amplify and appeal to these interests and characteristics in order to be more persuasive, achieve better response rates, and elicit higher quality comments.



RegulationRoom is designed and operated by the Cornell e-Rulemaking Initiative (CeRI) and hosted by the Legal Information Institute (LII). The site is a pilot project that provides an online environment for people and groups to learn about, discuss, and react to selected rules(regulations) proposed by federal agencies. It expands the types of public input available to agencies in the rulemaking process, while serving as a teaching and research platform.

Situated knowledge in policymaking

Technology-enabled civic participation in policymaking has become one of the most important e-government topics. As barriers to participation are lowered and more citizens are willing to engage directly with decision makers, sifting the flow of commentary to identify the most essential and useful information remains a significant challenge. This project is focused on developing Natural Language Processing (NLP) based solutions for extracting situated knowledge from public commentary on policy; it also aims to create tools for exploring various aspects of that knowledge. This work will help to make broad civic participation more effective in complex public policymaking at the federal, state, and municipal levels.

Started in 2012, our work so far has focused primarily on conceptualizing the value of situated knowledge in policymaking activities and building an annotated corpus for NLP analysis. This work resulted in a number of publications and a corpus that allowed for initial NLP experiments. Currently, we continue to expand the annotated corpus and build on the preliminary results of our NLP experiments and have started exploring the best ways to visualize situated knowledge for the purposes of more efficient and effective management of online public consultations. This work is funded by the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Innovation Institute Research Project Award and most recently through an NSF grant.

Unsubstantiated Claim Detection

With the continued advancement of information technology, we are experiencing an explosion of user participation in the web environment. In order to efficiently manage the growing amount of information, this project aims to automatically evaluate the quality of user generated texts, such as reviews and comments, by means of determining whether each claim is accompanied by substantiation. A working assumption here is that user generated texts that consist of substantiated claims are of better quality than those that contain unsubstantiated claims.



Dmitry Epstein & Cheryl Blake

CIVIC MEDIA: TECHNOLOGY, DESIGN, PRACTICE (Eric Gordon & Paul Mihailidis eds.) (2016) (forthcoming)

Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice, scheduled for publication by MIT Press in Spring 2016, takes an interdisciplinary approach to the questions: “How are digital technologies being used to foster connections between citizens and formal and informal public institutions? Can technologies alter public processes, change the way people interact with government, and deepen engagement with public life?”

Epstein and Blake’s case study was selected for inclusion from about 220 submissions.  The article  traces the features of the RegulationRoom platform, an online discussion site developed by CeRI (the Cornell e-Rulemaking Initiative) to support meaningful public participation in rulemaking - the process federal agencies use to make new health, safety, and economic regulations.  Although rulemaking is one of the most formally open and participatory mechanisms in US federal policymaking, complexity of information and lack of knowledge about the process deter effective public engagement in the process.  Epstein and Blake describe how the digital tools and human-supported interventions of RegulationRoom work to overcome these barriers.

Toward Machine-assisted Participation in eRulemaking: An Argumentation Model of Evaluability

Joonsuk Park, Cheryl Blake, & Claire Cardie


Increasingly, government agencies and civic technologists have been using online tools to foster broader and better public participation in rulemaking—the multi-step process that federal agencies use to develop new regulations.  However, participation by citizens who are not experts in this process—which emphasizes reason-giving and arguments over voting or statements of preference—has led to a growth of public input that is hard to evaluate.  In contrast to arguments put forward by policy analysts, lawyers, and others with formal training, comments from non-experts rarely explicitly state the premises for conclusions or provide objective evidence for factual claims. 

RegulationRoom , an online discussion platform developed by CeRI (the Cornell e-Rulemaking Initiative), works to counter the lack of participation literacy that makes it difficult for non-experts to participate effectively in rulemaking. This is primarily achieved through the use of moderators who press commenters for additional details and support.  However, these efforts are highly resource intensive.  As part of CeRI’s interdisciplinary research efforts, researchers in Cornell’s Department of Computer Science have been examining how to use natural language processing to help identify comments lacking support for arguments so that moderators can identify such comments and give feedback quickly.

The problem with words: Plain language and public participation in rulemaking

Farina, Newhart, M. & Blake, C.

Geo. Wash. L. Rev. (2015) (forthcoming)

This article, part of the symposium commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Administrative Conference of the United States, situates ACUS's recommendations for improving public rulemaking participation in the context of the federal "plain language" movement. The connection between broader, better public participation and more comprehensible rulemaking materials seems obvious, and ACUS recommendations have recognized this connection for almost half a century.  Remarkably, though, the series of Presidential and statutory plain-language directives have not even mentioned the relationship of comprehensibility to participation-until very recently.  In 2012, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) issued "guidance" instructing that "straightforward executive summaries" be included in "lengthy or complex rules." OIRA reasoned that"[p]ublic participation cannot occur … if members of the public are unable to obtain a clear sense of the content of [regulatory] requirements."

Using a novel dataset of proposed and final rule documents from 2010-2014, we examine the effect of the executive summary requirement.  We find that the use of executive summaries increased substantially compared to the modest executive-summary practice pre-Guidance.  We also find that agencies have done fairly well in providing summaries for "lengthy" rules.  Success in providing the summary in "complex" rules and in following the standard template included with the Guidance is mixed. Our most significant finding is the stunning failure of the new executive summary requirement to produce more comprehensible rulemaking information.  Standard readability measures place the executive summaries at a level of difficulty that would challenge even college graduates. Moreover, executive summaries are, on average, even less readable than the remainder of the rule preambles that they are supposed to make accessible to a broader audience.

We do find some bright spots in this generally gloomy picture, as some agencies (or parts of agencies) are doing better at producing readable executive summaries.  We end with speculation about why efforts to "legislate" more comprehensible rulemaking documents persistently fail. We urge ACUS to pursue its commitment to broader rulemaking participation by studying agency practices in this area, with the goal of identifying best practices and making informed and practicable recommendations for producing rulemaking materials that interested members of the public could actually understand.

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Not by Technology Alone: The “Analog” Aspects of Online Public Engagement in Policymaking

Epstein, D., Newhart, M., & Vernon, R.

Government Information Quarterly 31(2) (2014) 337-344 (2014)

Between Twitter revolutions and Facebook elections, there is a growing belief that information and communication technologies are changing the way democracy is practiced. The discourse around e-government and online deliberation is frequently focused on technical solutions and based in the belief that if you build it correctly they will come. This paper departs from the literature on digital divide to examine barriers to online civic participation in policy deliberation.

While most scholarship focuses on identifying and describing those barriers, this study offers an in-depth analysis of what it takes to address them using a particular case study. Based in the tradition of action research, this paper focuses on analysis of practices that evolved in Regulation Room - a research project of CeRI (Cornell eRulemaking Initiative) that works with federal government agencies in helping them engage public in complex policymaking processes. It draws a multidimensional picture of motivation, skill, and general political participation divides; or the “analog” aspects of the digital divide in online civic participation and policy deliberation.

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Democratic deliberation in the wild: The McGill Online Design Studio and the RegulationRoom project

Farina, C., Kong, H., Blake, C., Newhart, M. & Luka, N.

41 Fordham Urb. L.J. 1527 (2014) (2014)

Although there is no single unified conception of deliberative democracy, the generally accepted core thesis is that democratic legitimacy comes from authentic deliberation on the part of those affected by a collective decision. This deliberation must occur under conditions of equality, broadmindedness, reasonableness, and inclusion. In exercises such as National Issue forums, citizen juries, and consensus conferences, deliberative practitioners have shown that careful attention to process design can enable ordinary citizens to engage in meaningful deliberation about difficult public policy issues.

Typically, however, these are closed exercises-that is, they involve a limited number of participants, often selected to achieve a representative sample, who agree to take part in an extended, often multi-stage process.

The question we begin to address here is whether the aspirations of democratic deliberation have any relevance to conventional public comment processes. These processes typically allow participation that is universal (anyone who shows up can participate) and highly variable (ranging from brief engagement and short expressions of outcome preferences to protracted attention and lengthy brief-like presentations). Although these characteristics preclude the kind of control over process and participants that can be achieved in a deliberation exercise, we argue that conscious attention to process design can make it more likely that more participants will engage in informed, thoughtful, civil, and inclusive discussion. We examine this question through the lens of two action-based research projects: the McGill Online Design Studio (MODS), which facilitates public participation in Canadian urban planning, and RegulationRoom, which supports public comment in U.S. federal rulemaking.

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Rulemaking vs. Democracy: Judging and Nudging Public Participation That Counts

Farina, C., Newhart, M. & Heidt, J.

Environmental Law Reporter, 44 ELR 10670, August 2014 (2014)

An underlying assumption of many open government enthusiasts is that more public participation will necessarily lead to better government policymaking: If we use technology to give people easier opportunities to participate in public policymaking, they will use these opportunities to participate effectively. Yet, experience thus far with technology-enabled rulemaking (e-rulemaking)has not confirmed this "if-then" causal link. Such causal assumptions1 include several strands: If we give people the opportunity to participate, they will participate. If we alert people that government is making decisions important to them, they will engage with that decisionmaking. If we make relevant information available, they will use that information meaningfully. If we build it, they will come. If they come, we will get better government policy.

This Article considers how this flawed causal reasoning around technology has permeated efforts to increase public participation in rulemaking. The observations and suggestions made here flow from conceptual work and practical experience in the Regulation Room project. Regulation Room is an ongoing research effort by the Cornell eRulemaking Initiative (CeRI), a multidisciplinary group of researchers who partner with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and other federal agencies. At the core is an experimental online public participation platform that offers selected "live" agency rulemakings. The goal is discovering how information and communication technologies (ICTs) can be used most effectively to engender broader, better participation in rulemaking and similar types of policymaking.

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Identifying Appropriate Support for Propositions in Online User Comments.

Park, J. & Cardie, C.

Proceedings of the ACL 2014 Workshop on Argumentation Mining. Baltimore, MD: ACL. (2014)

The ability to analyze the adequacy of supporting information is necessary for determining the strength of an argument. This is especially the case for online user comments, which often consist of arguments lacking proper substantiation and reasoning. Thus, we develop a framework for automatically classifying each proposition as UNVERIFIABLE, VERIFIABLE NONEXPERIENTIAL, or VERIFIABLE EXPERIENTIAL, where the appropriate type of support is reason, evidence, and optional evidence, respectively. Once the existing support for propositions are identified, this classification can provide an estimate of how adequately the arguments have been supported. We build a goldstandard dataset of 9,476 sentences and clauses from 1,047 comments submitted to an eRulemaking platform and find that Support Vector Machine (SVM) classifiers trained with n-grams and additional features capturing the verifiability and experientiality exhibit statistically significant improvement over the unigram baseline, achieving a macro-averaged F1 of 68.99%.

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Designing an Online Civic Engagement Platform: Balancing “More” vs. “Better” Participation in Complex Public Policymaking

Farina, C., Epstein, D., Heidt, J., & Newhart, M.

International Journal of E-Politics, 5(1) 16-40, January-March. (2014)

A new form of online citizen participation in government decisionmaking has arisen in the United States (U.S.) under the Obama Administration. “Civic Participation 2.0” attempts to use Web 2.0 information and communication technologies to enable wider civic participation in government policymaking, based on three pillars of open government: transparency, participation, and collaboration. Thus far, the Administration has modeled Civic Participation 2.0 almost exclusively on a universalist/populist Web 2.0 philosophy of participation.


In this model, content is created by users, who are enabled to shape the discussion and assess the value of contributions with little information or guidance from government decisionmakers. The authors suggest that this model often produces “participation” unsatisfactory to both government and citizens. The authors propose instead a model of Civic Participation 2.0 rooted in the theory and practice of democratic deliberation. In this model, the goal of civic participation is to reveal the conclusions people reach when they are informed about the issues and have the opportunity and motivation seriously to discuss them. Accordingly, the task of civic participation design is to provide the factual and policy information and the kinds of participation mechanisms that support and encourage this sort of participatory output. Based on the authors’ experience with Regulation Room, an experimental online platform for broadening effective civic participation in rulemaking (the process federal agencies use to make new regulations), the authors offer specific suggestions for how designers can strike the balance between ease of engagement and quality of engagement – and so bring new voices into public policymaking processes through participatory outputs that government decisionmakers will value.


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The value of words: Narrative as evidence in policy-making

Epstein, D., Farina, C., & Heidt, J.

Evidence & Policy. 10(2) 243-258. (2014)

Policy makers today rely primarily on technical data as their basis for decision making. Yet, there is a potentially underestimated value in substantive reflections of the members of the public who will be affected by a particular regulation. Viewing professional policy makers and professional commenters as a community of practice, we describe their limited shared repertoire with the lay members of the public as a significant barrier to participation. Based on our work with Regulation Room, we offer an initial typology of narratives – complexity, contributory context, unintended consequences, and reframing – as a first step towards overcoming conceptual barriers to effective civic engagement in policy making.

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Rulemaking 2.0: Understanding and Getting Better Public Participation

Farina, Cynthia R. and Newhart, Mary J.

(IBM Center for the Business of Government Report, Using Technology Series). Washington, DC: IBM Center for the Business of Government. (2013)

More than a decade after the launch of, the government-wide federal online rulemaking portal, and nearly four years since the Obama Administration directed agencies to use “innovative tools and practices that create new and easier methods for public engagement,” there are still more questions than answers about what value social media and other Web 2 .0 technologies can bring to rulemaking–and about how agencies can realize that value.

This report, commissioned by the IBM Center for the Business of Government, begins to provide those answers. Drawing on insights from a number of disciplines and on three years of actual experience in the Regulation Room project, CeRI researchers explain the barriers that new rulemaking participants must overcome. And they make specific recommendations for lowering these barriers using outreach strategies, information design, and choice of participation tools. Although the particular focus is public participation in the context of rulemaking, much of what is discussed here will help any government or civil society group seeking broader, better public engagement in complex policy decisions.

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Regulation Room: How the Internet Improves Public Participation in Rulemaking

Solivan, J. & Farina, C.R.

Proceedings of the Marine Safety & Security Council, 69(4) and 70(1), 58-82. (2013)

Cornell eRulemaking Initiative (CeRI) designed and operated Regulation Room, a pilot project that provides an online environment for people and groups to learn about, discuss, and react to selected proposed federal rules.

The project is a unique collaboration between CeRI academic researchers and the government. The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) was CeRI's first agency partner and chose Regulation Room as its first open government "flagship initiative." USDOT received a White House Open Government Leading Practices Award for its collaboration in the project. CeRI owns, designs, operates, and controls Regulation Room, but works closely with partner agencies to identify suitable "live" rulemakings for the site and to evaluate success after a rule closes.

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Balancing Inclusion and "Enlightened Understanding" in Designing Online Civic Participation Systems: Experiences from Regulation Room

Farina, C.R., Newhart, M.J., Heidt, J., & Solivan, J.

Proceedings of the 14th Annual International Conference on Digital Government Research. Quebec City, Quebec: ACM. (2013)

New forms of online citizen participation in government decision making have been fostered in the United States (U.S.) under the Obama Administration. Use of Web information technologies have been encouraged in an effort to create more back-and-forth communication between citizens and their government. These "Civic Participation 2.0" attempts to open the government up to broader public participation are based on three pillars of open government---transparency, participation, and collaboration.

Thus far, the Administration has modeled Civic Participation 2.0 almost exclusively on the Web 2.0 ethos, in which users are enabled to shape the discussion and encouraged to assess the value of its content. We argue that strict adherence to the Web 2.0 model for citizen participation in public policymaking can produce "participation" that is unsatisfactory to both government decisionmakers and public participants. We believe that successful online civic participation design must balance inclusion and "enlightened understanding," one of the core conditions for democratic deliberation. Based on our experience with Regulation Room, an experimental online participation platform trying to broaden meaningful public engagement in the process federal agencies use to make new regulations, we offer specific suggestions on how participation designers can strike the balance between ease of engagement and quality of engagement---and so bring new voices into the policymaking process through participating that counts.

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Regulation Room: Getting "More, Better" Civic Participation in Complex Government Policymaking

Farina, C.R., Epstein, D., Heidt, J.B., & Newhart, M.J.

Transforming Government: People, Process and Policy, Vol. 7 Iss: 4, pp.501 - 516 (2013)

Rulemaking (the process agencies use to make new health, safety, social and economic regulations) is one of the U.S. government's most important policymaking methods and has long been a target for e-government efforts. Although broad transparency and participation rights are part of its legal structure, significant barriers prevent effective engagement by many citizens. is an online experimental e-participation platform, designed and operated by CeRI, the cross-disciplinary Cornell eRulemaking Initiative. Using the Regulation Room as a case study, this paper addresses what capacities are required for effective civic engagement and how they can be nurtured and supported within an online participation system.

Our research suggests that effectively designing and deploying technology, although essential, is only one dimension of realizing broader, better online civic engagement. Effective e-participation systems must be prepared to address a set of barriers that impede many citizens’ meaningful participation in complex policymaking processes—barriers that are social, psychological and/or procedural (rather than technological) in nature. Our research also suggests the need for re-conceptualizing the value of broad civic participation to the policymaking processes and for recognizing that new commenters engage with policy issues differently than experienced insiders. The paper includes a series of strategic recommendations for policymakers seeking public input. While it indicates that a broader range of citizens can indeed be meaningfully engaged, it also cautions that getting better participation from more people requires the investment of resources. More fundamental, both government decisionmakers and participation designers must be open to recognizing non-traditional forms of knowledge and styles of communication – and willing to devise participation mechanisms and protocols accordingly.

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Knowledge in the People: Rethinking "Value" in Public Rulemaking Participation.

Farina, C.R., Epstein, E., Heidt, J., & Newhart, M.J.

Wake Forest Law Review, 47(5), 1185-1241. (2012)

A companion piece to Rulemaking vs. Democracy: Judging and Nudging Public Participation that Counts, this Essay continues to examine the nature and value of broader public participation in rulemaking. Here, we argue that rulemaking is a “community of practice,” with distinctive forms of argumentation and methods of reasoning that both reflect and embody craft knowledge.
Rulemaking newcomers are outside this community of practice: Even when they are reasonably informed about the legal and policy aspects of the agency’s proposal, their participation differs in kind and form from that of sophisticated commenters. From observing the actual behavior of rulemaking newcomers in the Regulation Room project, we suggest that new public participation is often, if not predominantly, experiential in nature and narrative in form. We argue that it is unrealistic to expect that rulemaking newcomers can be significantly inculcated into the norms and methods of the existing rulemaking community of practice. Yet, the potential policymaking value of the on-the-ground, situated knowledge they can bring to the discussion justifies efforts to expand our understanding of the kinds of comments that should “count” in the process. We take some first steps in that direction in this Essay.

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Rulemaking vs. Democracy: Judging and Nudging Public Participation that Counts

Farina, C.R., Newhart, M., & Heidt, J.

Michigan Journal of Environmental & Administrative Law, 2(1), 123-217. (2012)

Open government enthusiasts assume that more public participation will lead to better government policymaking: If we use technology to give people easier opportunities to participate, they will use these opportunities to participate effectively.

However, experience with technology-enabled rulemaking (e-rulemaking) belies this assumption. Engagement of new participants most often takes the form of mass comment campaigns orchestrated by advocacy groups. Challenging the conventional highly negative response to mass commenting, Prof. Nina Mendelson has recently argued that, in a democratic government, agencies should give at least some weight to the value preferences expressed in such comments when rulemaking involves value judgments. Engaging this important argument, we propose a framework for assessing the value of technology-enabled rulemaking participation. Our position -- that the types of preferences expressed in mass comments may be good enough for electoral democracy but they are not good enough for even heavily value-laden rulemaking -- challenges both the Web 2.0 ethos and the common open-government belief that more public participation, of any kind, is a good thing. In rulemaking and similar complex policymaking processes, more public participation is good only if it is the kind of participation that has value in the process. We offer specific principles of participation-system design that are drawn from both normative conceptions of the responsibilities of a democratic government and from the design-based research being carried on by the CeRI (Cornell eRulemkaing Iniative) in the Regulation Room project. We argue that design of civic engagement systems must involve a purposeful and continuous effort to balance “more” and “better” participation, and stress that a democratic government should not actively facilitate public participation that it does not value.

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RegulationRoom: Field-Testing An Online Public Participation Platform During USA Agency Rulemakings

Farina, C.R., Heidt, J., Newhart, M.J., & Vallbé, J.J.

In M. Gascoì (Ed.), Proceedings of 12th European Conference on eGovernment. Reading: Academic Publishing International (2012)

Rulemaking is one of the U.S. government's most important policymaking methods. Although broad transparency and participation rights are part of its legal structure, significant barriers prevent effective engagement by many groups of interested citizens.

RegulationRoom, an experimental open-government partnership between academic researchers and government agencies, is a socio-technical participation system that uses multiple methods to alert and effectively engage new voices in rulemaking. Initial results give cause for optimism but also caution that successful use of new technologies to increase participation in complex government policy decisions is more difficult and resource-intensive than many proponents expect.

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Facilitative Moderation for Online Participation in eRulemaking

Park, J., Cardie, C., Farina, C.R., Klingel, S., Newhart, M., & Vallbé, J.J.

Proceedings of the 13th Annual International Conference on Digital Government Research. College Park, MD: ACM (2012)

This paper describes the use of facilitative moderation strategies in an online rulemaking public participation system. Rulemaking is one of the U.S. government’s most important policymaking methods.

Although broad transparency and participation rights are part of its legal structure, significant barriers prevent effective engagement by many groups of interested citizens. Regulation Room, an experimental open-government partnership between academic researchers and government agencies, is a socio-technical participation system that uses multiple methods to lower potential barriers to broader participation. To encourage effective individual comments and productive group discussion in Regulation Room, we adapt strategies for facilitative human moderation originating from social science research in deliberative democracy and alternative dispute resolution [24, 1, 18, 14] for use in the demanding online participation setting of eRulemaking. We develop a moderation protocol, deploy it in “live” Department of Transportation (DOT) rulemakings, and provide an initial analysis of its use through a manual coding of all moderator interventions with respect to the protocol. We then investigate the feasibility of automating the moderation protocol: we employ annotated data from the coding project to train machine learning-based classifiers to identify places in the online discussion where human moderator intervention is required. Though the trained classifiers only marginally outperform the baseline, the improvement is statistically significant in spite of limited data and a very basic feature set, which is a promising result.

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Rulemaking 2.0

Farina, C. R., Newhart, M. J., Cardie, C., & Cosley, D.

University of Miami Law Review, 65( 2), 395-448. (2011)

In response to President Obama's Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, federal agencies are on the verge of a new generation in online rulemaking. However, unless we recognize the several barriers to making rulemaking a more broadly participatory process, and purposefully adapt Web 2.0 technologies and methods to lower those barriers, Rulemaking 2.0 is likely to disappoint agencies and open-government advocates alike.

This article describes the design, operation, and initial results of Regulation Room, a pilot public rulemaking participation platform created by a cross-disciplinary group of Cornell researchers in collaboration with the Department of Transportation. Regulation Room uses selected live rulemakings to experiment with human and computer support for public comment. The ultimate project goal is to provide guidance on design, technological, and human intervention strategies, grounded in theory and tested in practice, for effective Rulemaking 2.0 systems.
Early results give some cause for optimism about the open-government potential of Web 2.0-supported rulemaking. But significant challenges remain. Broader, better public participation is hampered by 1) ignorance of the rulemaking process; 2) unawareness that rulemakings of interest are going on; and 3) information overload from the length and complexity of rulemaking materials. No existing, commonly used Web services or applications are good analogies for what a Rulemaking 2.0 system must do to lower these barriers. To be effective, the system must not only provide the right mix of technology, content, and human assistance to support users in the unfamiliar environment of complex government policymaking; it must also spur them to revise their expectations about how they engage information on the Web and also, perhaps, about what is required for civic participation.

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Rulemaking in 140 Characters or Less: Social Networking and Public Participation in Rulemaking

Farina, C. R., Miller, P., Newhart, M. J., Cardie, C., Cosley, D., & Vernon, R.

Pace Law Review, 31(1), 382-463 (2011)

Rulemaking – the process by which administrative agencies make new regulations -- has long been a target for e-government efforts. The process is now one of the most important ways the federal government makes public policy. Moreover, transparency and participation rights are already part of its legal structure. The first generation of federal e-rulemaking involved putting the conventional process online by creating an e-docket of rulemaking materials and allowing online submission of public comments. Now the Obama Administration is urging agencies to embark on the second generation of technology-assisted rulemaking, by bringing social media into the process.

In this article we describe the initial results of a pilot Rulemaking 2.0 system, Regulation Room, with particular emphasis on its social networking and other Web 2.0 elements. (A companion article, Rulemaking 2.0, gives a more general overview of the project and is forthcoming in Miami Law Review). Web 2.0 technologies and methods seem well suited to overcoming one of the principal barriers to broader, better public participation in rulemaking: unawareness that a rulemaking of interest is going on. We talk here about the successes and obstacles to social-media based outreach in the first two rulemakings offered on Regulation Room. Our experience confirms the power of viral information spreading on the Web, but also warns that outcomes can be shaped by circumstances difficult, if not impossible, for the outreach effort to control.
There are two additional substantial barriers to broader, better public participation in rulemaking: ignorance of the rulemaking process, and the information overload of voluminous and complex rulemaking materials. Social media are less obviously suited to lowering these barriers. We describe here the design elements and human intervention strategies being used in Regulation Room, with some success, to overcome process ignorance and information overload. However, it is important to recognize that the paradigmatic Web 2.0 user experience involves behaviors fundamentally at odds with the goals of such strategies. One of these is the ubiquitousness of voting (through rating, ranking, and recommending) as “participation” online. Another is what Web guru Jacok Neilsen calls the ruthlessness of users in moving rapidly through web sites, skimming rather than carefully reading content and impatiently seeking something to do quickly before they move on. Neither of these behaviors well serves those who would participate effectively in rulemaking. For this reason, Rulemaking 2.0 systems must be consciously engaged in culture creation, a challenging undertaking that requires simultaneously using, and fighting, the methods and expectations of the Web.

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