Consultations.gov is a proposed initiative that would provide the public a single point of entry to online consultation processes occurring in federal agencies.
The site might take several forms. These could range from a directory with links to ongoing and scheduled agency consultations (comparable to what usa.gov does on a grander scale) to the exclusive site at which all federal agency web-based consultation must occur (comparable to regulations.gov for e-rulemaking).
Perhaps the most interesting form from a research perspective—as well as the most likely to be useful/successful from an agency perspective—is a mid-range point on the spectrum: Consultations.gov could host and facilitate online consultations, for agencies choosing to use it, by providing an array of supported protocols suited to different circumstances. Relevant circumstances might include agency objective, size and nature of target participant group, nature of regulatory policy issue, and type and stage of regulatory proceeding.
At least at the federal level, the U.S. has been slow, in comparison with other countries and the European Union, to explore web-based methods of engaging the public in discussion of public policy questions. Regulations.gov begins this process by bringing the notice-and-comment part of rulemaking online. However, even apart from concerns about whether that site adequately supports the average member of the public in comprehending the rulemaking process, [see The Public Interface Project], informed observers have always recognized that the opportunity for public comment comes very late in the process of solidifying the agency's commitment to the rule. Even though it moves the process online, regulations.gov makes no essential change in the timing or nature of the consultation with the public. And in any event, important as rulemaking is, it is only one of several contexts in which significant policy issues come before agencies agencies.
Hence there is a need to provide support, in technology and forms of practice, for federal agencies to use the Web to engage the public, or targeted subsets (scientific experts, technical sub-communities, NGOs, etc.) in consultations that reach beyond the normal group of repeat players and other insiders who communicate regularly with agencies outside of formal processes. However, this effort is unlikely to succeed unless we understand and address the factors that have, until now, inhibited such experimentation.