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The Inside Skinny on PI Transformation

A few weeks ago, we introduced our new Public Inspection (PI) page on FederalRegister.gov (FR2.0). The back-story of this Federal Register 2.0 project is now posted on CriticalJuncture.org. The PI project may offer lessons to anyone who is considering whether to transform an already good service into one that could be much more versatile and customer friendly.

We think that our original PI page on OFR.gov was one of the most democratizing e-gov efforts undertaken in the past few years. The physical version of the PI Desk inside the OFR office near Capitol Hill was a battered old table with documents piled into wooden boxes. For 73 years we offered shoe-leather access — if you worked inside the DC Beltway, and let’s say you wanted to know how the Government was reacting to a financial crisis, you could hoof it over to the OFR and look for documents in the emergency filing box.

You might stand in line to read an item, then wait for a photocopier and hope it didn’t break down. You could try agency websites, but you could not rely on that material. It might not be current, and only the OFR had the original, which may have been modified by the agency at the OFR after our legal review ensured that effective dates made sense and CFR amendments were properly stated.

Despite the Beltway-insiders-only nature of this process, when we first raised the idea of creating a virtual PI Desk, the reaction inside Government was an extended yawn. What’s the big deal about getting early access to documents that you can read online in the Federal Register the next day or soon after? Well, instant access to regulatory information is a big deal when billions of dollars are on the line, and the financial futures of millions of Americans are at stake.

So when we created online PI on OFR.gov as the 2008 financial crisis was unfolding, it was a big step forward, but the online application had its limitations. Not long ago, one of our customers tweeted: “Most days I split my time between Twitter, my fantasy football teams and refreshing the OFR public inspection page” (via @aawayne). To @aawayne and others, this stuff really matters, inside and outside the Beltway.

In response, the FR2.0 team started asking questions like:

  • “What if you could receive email alerts as new documents you are interested in appeared on Public Inspection?”
  • “What if you could link to that document knowing that it will always be there AND contain a link to the published document?”
  • “What could you create if there were an API endpoint for these documents?”

Here is the full rundown on the Public Inspection Desk application on Federal Register 2.0. We think that adding this powerful set of new features advances the goal of Open Government and Open Data, and continues to address the current needs of PI desk users.