Federal agencies should begin fully describing public comment data and their limitations, despite agencies not being required to collect information on or to verify commenters’ identities.

“We surveyed people whose email addresses were attached to public comments on proposed rules from 10 Federal agencies,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) wrote in a new report. “From five percent to 30 percent of the people (depending on the agency) said they did not make the comment. At eight agencies, most of the comments did not have email addresses.”

Additionally, estimates of commenters with email addresses that confirmed their comments ranged from 48 to 87 percent. Despite agencies collecting identity information, the law doesn’t require the collection or verification of such data.

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According to GAO, various aspects of the commenting process can create limitations for certain external users of public comment data and some agencies don’t post all instances of duplicate comments, so the public may not have access to all comment data related to a proposed rule.

“Providing information about available public comment data and their limitations can help external users make informed decisions about their use of the data and help ensure they do not inadvertently draw inaccurate conclusions from the data,” wrote GAO.

GAO made 10 recommendations to select agencies and the General Services Administration (GSA), which the agencies generally agreed to.

Among those recommendations include the Federal Communications Commission, Bureau of Land Management, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Employee Benefits Security Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Food and Drug Administration, and Wage and Hour Division should all fully describe available public comment data, including limitations, to external users of the data.

The recommendation for GSA is for the agency to “coordinate with participating agencies to ensure that full descriptions of available public comment data – to include any limitations – are available to external users of the Regulations.gov API.”

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Jordan Smith
Jordan Smith
Jordan Smith is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.