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Pro tips for data-friendly regulations and proposals

We launched the eRegulations Notice and Comment pilot this summer, and in the process saw some patterns in how our partner agencies write their regulations. In response, the eRegulations team prepared a guide to help agencies write regulations in a more data- and human-friendly format that would be easier to parse — thus saving time and money.

The guide is still evolving, but it’s available publicly and will be updated as we explore more regulations.

Every agency has its own guidelines and tone for writing regulations, but the public sorts through regulations from many agencies in order to do one thing. The more alike regulations and rules are in structure across agencies, the lower the burden of understanding how to comply. The goal of this guide is to promote regulatory consistency across agencies both for readers using the eRegulations platform, and readers using the print versions in the Federal Register.

Some of the lessons we’ve learned from working with partner agencies on regulation and proposal writing are:

Follow the standard regulation outline structure

The standard regulation outline structure is important because it allows readers to link to specific citations and comment on specific paragraphs. In addition, it creates hierarchical relationships between paragraphs, and therefore topics, allowing the reader to more easily focus their energy on sections that apply to them.

Add any bulleted or numbered lists to the main outline structure of your document

The goal in structuring some regulation content as lists is to ensure it is broken down into discrete elements, making it easier for readers to understand. However, we want to be consistent with the standard regulation outline structure to make it easier for readers to link to or cite specific parts. We recommend numbered lists over bulleted because they fit more easily into the hierarchical structure of the regulation. In addition, bullets are published differently across different versions of the regulation.

Use the built-in heading structure of your writing software in your document

Many document editing programs such as Apache OpenOffice, Google Docs, Microsoft Word, and Apple Pages allow heading structures to be added, much like an outline. This makes the regulation easier to parse, and prevents confusion over whether or not emphasized text, for example, is intended to denote a heading or actual emphasis.

Use headings consistently and wherever possible

The Federal Register Document Drafting Handbook recommends the use of consistent headings at any paragraph level. Headings are essential to a good structured regulation or preamble. They group and explain topics so that it is easier to know which paragraphs to read, and which aren’t relevant. Headings allows the eRegulations platform to provide effective navigation throughout the document.

Amend, revise, add to, or remove whole paragraphs

The goal of the eRegulations comparison tool is to show how regulations have changed over time or how they will change in the future. We are able to automate this process by following the guidelines the Federal Register has laid out in their Handbook. However, computers have a harder time understanding certain commands than humans do. Even if you are only revising a word or a sentence, we recommend revising the entire paragraph. The computer will easily be able to compare the new text to the old text and show the differences in the eRegulations platform. Something like “change the fifth word in paragraph (b)” is hard for computers and humans reading the print version to get right.

“For extensive changes, revise the text in full rather than prepare fragmentary amendments. The reader will then have the complete text of the amended unit.” - Chapter 1.13 of the Federal Register Document Drafting Handbook.

Reference the preamble when creating an amendment and vice versa

One of the biggest pain points for readers of a proposed rule is the connection points between where a change is discussed in the preamble and the actual new regulatory language. In our user research, many people asked for this feature, but the eRegulations platform cannot make a connection automatically unless the proper citations are written into the document. We’re hoping that future proposed (and final) rules will have citations both in the preamble where a change is discussed and in the instructions for what regulation language is changing that will connect those parts of the rule together. That way readers always know where to look in the long document to find the parts that match up, and the eRegulations platform will be able to develop tools to pull those parts together visually.

Write in language that the average member of the public will understand

U.S. government regulations are for everyone. The content they contain should therefore be as straightforward and clear as possible. We lose reader’s trust and understanding if we write using long, confusing, “government” language. We also lower compliance with regulations and create more phone calls and inquiries to agency staff when readers cannot understand the regulation or legal guidance on first reading. Use mostly short sentences, avoid jargon where possible, and be concise. For more on this topic, see the 18F Content Guide, which also has a list of plain language resources.

All of the above advice follows or adds to the Federal Register Document Drafting Handbook.

Using this more structured approach makes it easier to turn the dense legal documents into data so that it can be displayed, cross-linked, and organized in a more easy-to-navigate interface.

Read the guide, and please let us know if you have questions or see issues we can improve. You can contact the team by emailing us at eregs@gsa.gov or filing an issue on GitHub

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