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March 31, 2014

All Public Comments Are Welcome. Then What?

“Do federal regulators really pay attention to public comments before they adopt new rules? A group of researchers says it has developed a tool that can answer that question — with the goal of providing an extra layer of accountability in government.

“By law, regulators are supposed to consider the public’s views. Any government action, after all, has the potential to help or harm many people. Once an agency proposes a rule, interested parties have a certain amount of time — usually from 30 to 90 days — to send in their comments, online or by mail. The agency’s staff must read all the comments and decide how much weight to give them, if any. Depending on the agency, the final rule can affect areas as diverse as the environment, the food supply or the financial markets.

“It all sounds fairly straightforward — except that it isn’t, says Andrei Kirilenko, a finance professor at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management. Rules and proposed rules — and, in many cases, public comments — are packed with jargon that makes them hard to decipher, he says.”

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“But a big problem exists with focusing broadly on public comments, says Dennis Kelleher, chief executive of the nonprofit Better Markets, which promotes the public interest in financial markets. An overwhelming majority of comments are “filed directly by the industry, its trade groups and its purchased mouthpieces,” he says. So if an algorithm indicates that regulators have listened to the public, he says, it really means that they are heeding an industry that wants to protect its profits and bonuses. And he says the wording of many financial regulations is so technical that average citizens may not have the ability to comment on them — even though the rules may affect them directly.”

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Read full NY Times article here.

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