Good government means untangling regulation language

Tuesday - 1/10/2012, 11:56am EST

Cass Sunstein, administrator, Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs

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By Michael O'Connell and Jolie Lee
Federal News Radio

More than a year ago, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 requiring agencies to write their regulations in plain English.

Cass Sunstein, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (Whitehouse.gov photo)

The administration is now requiring that agencies put the bottom line up front when they publish complicated rules, in the form of an easy-to-understand executive summary. The guidance comes in a memo from the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

"Rules are often long and complex," said Cass Sunstein, OIRA's administrator. "Sometimes they're well over 1,000 pages. And, to figure out exactly what they're doing and what the public is supposed to respond to, both in the comment period when there's a proposed rule and when the rule is finalized, what they're supposed to do in response, is often a lot of work."

Sunstein told The Federal Drive with Tom Temin this lack of clarity compromises open government and makes it difficult for people to provide input and makes compliance more costly and difficult.

Sunstein said the executive summary should include three key components:

  • The purpose of the regulation.
  • A summary of each major provision.
  • A summary of the costs and benefits.

"One thing we've found, in the last few days even, that is really helpful is to say to agencies, What are the five or six key provisions of a rule? If there are five or six, list them upfront. Have an italicized or bolded section to tell the public what it is ... Then you don't get lost in the detail of, in one recent case, a 1,700-page regulation," he said.

Adding the executive summary is a "simple, small step," but, Sunstein said, "I think it's a quite big deal."

OIRA is also taking stock of "significant regulations" already on the books and reviewing which ones can be streamlined or repealed altogether, Sunstein said. The department's goal is to make that retrospective review process "as open to the public as possible," he said.

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