Regulations.gov Sharpens Info Tools Useful to Reporters

December 16, 2009

Federal regulatory action is a key part of the beat for many environmental reporters — and it has never been easy to cover, especially for those outside the DC Beltway. Now, a newly revamped Web site, Regulations.gov, is making it easier.

It's not a panacea. But Regulations.gov makes it easier than ever to find and read documents submitted for the record at most federal regulatory agencies. And it offers some pretty sophisticated tools for finding newsy nuggets that once were like needles in a haystack.

Some SEJ members griped this fall when Regulations.gov discontinued a series of e-mail notifications of Federal Register notices on particular subjects. Those complaints got some significant response from EPA which, as a pace-setter among federal agencies in cyber-government, manages Regulations.gov.

Combing through the voluminous and technical Federal Register daily is punishing drudge work — but it consistently rewards good reporters with stories that others may miss. Or so it was in the old days, when most people subscribed to the Federal Register printed on dead trees. Today, it's available free online. But until recently, it was still a lot of work to find the notices you were interested in. On top of daily Web publication of Fed Register contents by Regulations.gov and GPO, EPA had compiled daily listserve notifications of EPA Fed Register notices on particular environmental topics. These were a boon and some top environmental reporters relied on them.

But most SEJ members had no idea that such a useful information service was available in the first place.

EPA cut the 13 specialized Federal Register listserves on orders from the White House Office of Management and Budget, which considered them duplicative. They had cost about $300,000 a year to produce. What was special about them was that they focused on particular environmental subjects at EPA.

You can still get daily e-mail notification of all the Fed Register notices for EPA. The agency had been planning to discontinue those e-mails also at the end of the year. But in response to complaints from some SEJ members, they will continue indefinitely.

To sign up for the daily e-mail, follow these steps:

  1. Click this link to subscribe or paste this link into your browser: https://lists.epa.gov/read/all_forums/subscribe?name=epafr-all
  2. Enter your email address and click Subscribe.
  3. Once submitted, the listserv will send an email with a link to confirm your subscription.
  4. Click on the link to confirm your email address and you will receive the daily EPA Federal Register notification.

Some SEJ members complained that these e-mails lacked hot-links or full-enough descriptions of the Fed Register notices. The WatchDog found the links to be live, and suspects performance may vary according to the e-mail software of the user reading them.

Far better than the e-mails, in the WatchDog's estimation, are an extensive series of RSS feeds available from Regulations.gov, which have fuller descriptions and hot-link directly to the full Fed Register notice from each entry in the table of contents. There is a separate feed for each federal agency [or sub-agency], but no feeds organized by subject.

You can see the list of all available Fed Register feeds here. From there, each can be read with one more click.

Not all are broken down for sub-agencies. For example, all notices for EPA are bundled into a single feed. Only a few sub-agencies are broken out for Interior (e.g. FWS) and Agriculture (USFS). But Transportation Dept. notices are broken out separately for the Federal Highway Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Some reporters don't like RSS feeds — an attitude gained years ago when you couldn't read them without special software and extra hassle. Today, feeds have evolved and the hassle is gone. Feed-readers are built into standard Web browsers nowadays, so it's just like browsing the Web with a bookmark.

The Fed Register notification feeds from Regulations.gov have some special advantages: from a Web-based table of contents, you can click directly to the full text of the notice; they display the docket number, allowing you to click directly to the docket, opening whole new worlds of documentary evidence; any Web addresses within the FR notice itself are also hot-links.

The changes at Regulations.gov come as part of a series of continuous improvements that have made the site easier to use and more useful in recent years. It used to be hard to get any information unless you had the docket number exactly right. Today, you can search on a keyword (like "pesticides") and get a full list of relevant notices almost instantly, along with tools for narrowing the list down if it is too big.

Listserve fans, by the way, need not despair. EPA still offers a universe of about 90 listserves focusing on specific EPA subject areas (from brownfields to environmental justice), most of them open to the public. Find them and subscribe here.