Get Active: How to file public comments on government actions

A page from The Librarian’s Civic Playbook

tl;dr: Go to Regulations.gov and follow instructions. Need more backgrounder? Read on.

What’s trending in federal regulations?

Calling your legislators is important. Here’s another way you can send feedback to the federal government, every day.


What is it?

This essay gives a great overview. Regulations.gov offers a way for people to give feedback on proposed Federal regulations by many federal agencies. This is another way to get involved that simply involves typing into a box online, and thinking a little. Whether you’re interested in privacy, FOIA regulations or the status of the rusty-patched bumblebee, you can give feedback here. Rulemaking is a somewhat arcane function of government, but one you can participate in.

The interface of Regulation.gov is mostly great but can be a little challenging. You can get a sense of that when you visit the FAQ which is twenty-eight + signs you click to get the answers. No one said democracy was easy, keep on going! Important takeaways from the FAQ:

  1. Unless you specify, your personal information will be made publicly available and your comments will be public. See this User Notice for more. You can comment anonymously if you prefer.
  2. You can’t edit comments once you’ve sent them, this isn’t Facebook (or Medium). You will get a tracking number to assure you that your comment has been sent.
  3. Yes your comments make a difference. They’ve made a whole PDF explaining how and why.
  4. Here’s one more PDF on how to write good comments otherwise referred to as the “Commenters Checklist”

Where’s the Good Stuff?

To start, find something you’re interested in. You can check what’s trending on the main page (no I am not joking), do a keyword search or an advanced search, browse through “Featured Regulations” or just see what’s new or which regulations’ comments are closing soon. Keep in mind that finding the rule is only part of the process. That rule usually exists inside a docket folder full of the main documents, supporting documents, other metadata, and all the public comments. Here’s an example of a docket folder for the discussion of the status of the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee. You can see all 195 of the comments which range from “Please save the rusty bulbul bee!” to multiple page PDFs from State Departments of Transportation. Here’s another example from the Drug Enforcement Agency’s attempts to put kratom on the Controlled Substances List (6500 comments!).

Sometimes organizations give you a list of questions about their proposed rulemaking they’d like answered. These are suggestions, don’t be put off.


How Do I Comment?

When you write your comment, you’ll get a text box which holds 5000 characters but you are allowed to send attachments with your comment. Some people only send PDFs. The George W. Bush Presidential Library wants to get rid of his NASA pin? OK by me.

5000 characters can be a lot, or a little

Send your comment off and you’ll get a receipt with a tracking number.

Use your own words. Effective comments with good supporting information carry more weight than hundreds of copypasted form letters.


Now What?

Once you comment, your comment is sent to the agency in charge of the rule being considered. You can use your tracking number as a way to follow up with the agency. Of course, the administration still has ways of trying to hinder the democratic process. The Rusty-Patched Bumblebee was placed on the Endangered Species List in January 2017 thanks in part to comments on Regulations.gov, but Trump’s immediate regulatory freeze may mean that this action doesn’t get enacted.

Don’t be deterred! There are always new rules to comment on and issues that need citizen feedback. Democracy, optimally, is a chronic condition. Bumblebees thank you. Librarians thank you.


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