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USDA Opens Doors To Regulatory Hearings Via the Internet

[Washington, DC] The U.S. Department of Agriculture has used the Internet to eliminate the voluminous paperwork, procedure, and distance that shut most citizens out of regulatory rulemaking.  The Agricultural Marketing Service's Internet Rulemaking for Organic Food Standards program makes the entire process available online via the agency's Website.  A "virtual reading room" replaces thousands of pages of reference materials and reams of public meeting transcripts and comments.  This creative use of the Internet has reaped a record-breaking 275,000 comments on a proposed rule.  Today, the program was named one of 25 finalists for the Innovations in American Government Awards.

"These innovative programs demonstrate each year that American democracy consistently changes while producing outstanding results," said Susan Berresford, president of the Ford Foundation, which sponsors the awards program.  "We hold them up not only as models of success, but also as evidence of the dynamic nature of American governments."

This year the Innovations in American Government Awards will honor the top 25 government initiatives that address today's toughest issues.  These successful programs will be granted a total of $1.3 million to encourage their replication in other governments across the country.  With its selection as one of 25 finalists, Internet Rulemaking on Organic Food Standards already has distinguished itself as a leading example of a government agency tackling a tough situation -and succeeding -by using an innovative and creative approach.

The Innovations in American Government Awards recognize not only outstanding federal government programs but innovative programs from all levels of government - federal, state and local, as well as tribal.  This year, five federal programs have been named finalists for the Innovations Awards.  In addition to Internet Rulemaking for Organic Food Standards, other federal programs that have been selected come from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Health Care Financing Administration, and the Department of Defense.

"We are honored to have been chosen as a finalist for the Innovations in American Government Award," said Dr. Enrique E. Figueroa, Administrator, USDA/Agricultural Marketing Service.  "We have worked very hard to include the people in rulemaking decisions, and hope that Internet Rulemaking on Organic Food Standards can be a model for other agencies to do the same."

On October 13, representatives from the USDA will describe the program and answer questions before the Innovations in American Government Awards National Selection Committee.  On the following day, the Committee will announce the 10 winning programs.  The National Selection Committee is composed of former elected officials, private industry and civic leaders, and is chaired by David Gergen, former advisor to four presidents and current editor-at-large at U.S. News & World Report.

Internet Rulemaking on Organic Food Standards -Background
The USDA and many other government agencies are required to seek public comment as they write proposed regulatory rules.  This law gives citizens and other stakeholders the opportunity to voice their concerns and opinions and it gives agencies a broader perspective of the impact of their rules.  For average citizens who wished to comment, however, the process isn't always user-friendly.  Often, they are required to travel to Washington, D.C., pore over massive amounts of paper files, public comment letters, and reference materials.  This leaves rulemaking to individuals who are familiar with the Federal Register or to attorneys and lobbyists in the field -not to the average citizen.

The USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service developed the Internet Rulemaking on Organic Food Standards system to put rulemaking back into the hands of the people.  Now, instead of going to the USDA's offices in Washington, D.C. to submit a comment, people concerned with a proposed rule can log onto the USDA's Website:  Internet Rulemaking on Organic Food Standards has resulted in a record-breaking 275,000 comments on a proposed rule.  During the public comment period, the Website received 369,000 hits -an average of 2,700 a day.

The public can also access the site's "virtual reading room" which has reference materials, transcripts of public meetings, and comments about the proposed rule.  The agency must use the administrative record to draft the final rule, giving the people a voice in decision making.

About the Innovations Awards Program
The Innovations in American Government Awards are funded by the Ford Foundation and administered by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, in partnership with the Council for Excellence in Government.  The Innovations in American Government Awards received more than 1,600 applications in 1999.  In May, the field was narrowed to 98 semifinalists, and today's announcement reduced the number of contestants to just 25.  Each of the 25 finalists receives a $20,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to be used toward replicating its program in other areas.  The winners of the ten $100,000 grants will be announced on October 14, in Washington, D.C.

Since the Innovations program began granting awards in 1986, the Ford Foundation has made grants totaling $14.6 million to 125 winners and 105 finalists.  More than 85 percent of the programs receiving Innovations Awards have been replicated.

The Ford Foundation, established in 1936, is a private, non-profit institution that serves as a resource for innovative people and institutions worldwide.  Its goals are to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement.  A national and international philanthropy with assets of more than $11 billion, the Foundation has provided more than $9 billion in grants and loans to some 9,000 institutions and 100,000 individuals worldwide.

Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government is a graduate school of public policy dedicated to preparing leaders for service in government and other institutions of democratic societies and to contributing to the solution of important public problems.

The Council for Excellence in Government is a national, non-profit and nonpartisan organization whose 750 members have served as senior public-sector officials.  Its mission is to improve the performance of government by strengthening results-oriented management and creative leadership in the public sector and to build understanding in government by focusing public discussion on its role and responsibilities.


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The Innovations in American Government Program
An  Awards Program of the Ford Foundation and Harvard Universityıs
John F. Kennedy School of Government in partnership
with the Council for Excellence in Government

For Immediate Release 
August 31, 1999
Contact: Alison Bender
Ellen Dadisman
(202) 467-6600