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An open source government is a faster, more efficient government

Regulation 479 is the first Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) regulation on the eRegulations platform. eRegs provides intuitive navigation, quick access to defined terms, search, and also displays how regulations have changed over time. This collaboration is an excellent example of how open source development helps 18F deliver valuable services to our clients and the American public.

We started working with the ATF on eRegulations two months before shipping, but the real foundation for this project was laid over two years ago, in a completely different agency: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Their goal was to present their regulations as clearly as possible and to provide access to as much of the related information (official interpretations, analyses for changes to sections, etc.) as feasible. The framework they produced is flexible enough to work relatively well with other agencies’ regulations, including ATF.

Savings through reuse

18F uses open source projects in almost everything we do, from operating systems to programming languages, from static site generators to dynamic web frameworks. We have a soft spot for tools created by intrepid civic hackers both within and outside of the government. To name just a few, our Open Source Policy has roots in the Department of Defense, we have a close collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) working on api-umbrella, and at one time used Honolulu Answers for our work with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Using open source projects allows us to develop quickly. Instead of writing ATF’s eRegs from scratch, we could piggyback on the two-plus years of work CFPB did on the project. Even if we assume only half of that work was directly applicable, we saved a full year of development costs. Effectively, 14 months of work took two months of time, allowing our small team to focus on issues with ATF-specific regulations, branding, and deployment. This is the great, fulfilled promise of open source; we reap the benefits every day.

A comparison of CFPB's eRegs and ATF's eRegs

Collaborating with our peers

We’re sometimes fortunate enough to have a deep collaboration with the authors of this civic software. In the case of NREL, we employ one of their finest developers part time. Several of 18F’s staff (myself included) came from CFPB, so our ties remain quite strong. On eRegs, we have an even tighter bond; our developers and CFPB’s developers frequently share our plans and solutions. Not only do we share code, but we try to share our visions for the software.

Of course, these visions aren’t identical. 18F is focused on making eRegs work for a variety of agencies while CFPB is (rightly) concerned with their own regulations. Adding this contention to tight timelines on both sides, our code bases have diverged. Both teams are working for the benefit of the larger project, however. These differences will eventually be reconciled; in the meantime, we are trying to fix the problem one patch at a time.

At 18F, we worked with our cloud.gov colleagues to make ATF eRegs one of the pilot projects for cloud.gov’s launch. Cloud.gov hosts and manages shared server infrastructure for the platform, saving money for taxpayers.

Next steps for eRegs

In addition to merging the CFPB and 18F code bases, we’re hoping to work more closely with ATF to develop eRegs into a platform that fits their specific needs. Our short timeline restricted our work to tweaking data structures and massaging the data to account for ATF regulations rather than focusing on new features. These features, such as including additional external resources (for example court case documents), importing documents further in the past, and the coveted notice-and-comment period will not only make the product better for ATF’s users, they should also improve the experience for other agencies.

In the meantime, explore the existing imported regulation, now more accessible than ever. The regulation is neatly broken into sections so that you can flip through or jump to a specific topic. Rather than flipping back and forth between the definitions section and the rest of the regulation, you can find defined terms inline. Use search to quickly find exactly what you’re looking for, or follow the history of the regulation over time. All of this is now possible, in large part thanks to open source.

As we continue to add features to this open source platform, other agencies can use the new additions for their regulations. We have notice and comment functionality in our future development roadmap plans for proposed regulations, which will be especially valuable for collecting public comments digitally.

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