Each year, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PDEP) receives tens of thousands of comments on public policy documents like rulemakings, technical guidance documents, and general permits. Comments are typically received in various formats – written, electronic, and through in-person testimony. To enhance Pennsylvania’s commitment to public participation and transparency, PDEP on May 28, 2015, launched a new online comment experience to make it easier for the public to submit comments and for PDEP staff to manage them. eComment is a “one-stop shop” allowing the public to more easily access all open proposals, view all supporting documentation, submit comments online, and ultimately view the full text of all public comments submitted.
Previously, anyone submitting comments would send them and wait for a confirmation of receipt depending on method of submission. They would also have to wait to view all comments submitted on a proposal until a comment-response document was prepared and finalized, sometimes up to two years after the fact. Now, through PDEP’s new eComment system, an automatic reply receipt is sent to commentators with the exact comments as submitted. In addition, the system makes available online all of the comments received as the agency receives them. Even comments that are emailed or sent through the U.S. Mail are entered and uploaded into eComment, providing commenters with the confidence that their comments were received. By publishing comments as they are received, anyone interested in a proposal can read the comments and concerns raised by others online while the comment period is still open. This more open and upfront process will lead to more meaningful engagement with the public and result in more effective policies. eComment also lists all proposals for which the comment period has recently closed and documents that were recently finalized, replacing separate (and sometimes confusing) web pages on which this information previously was maintained.
Prior to the launch of eComment, comments on individual proposals were submitted to a designated contact in each of PDEP’s individual programs. All comments are now managed by PDEP’s Policy Office, and regardless of submission format, are retained within eComment. If a commentator wants to submit their comments via email, there is now one email address to do so: firstname.lastname@example.org. Not only does this assist with the management of large volumes of comments, it also aids with record retention. eComment allows the Policy Office to export a commenter list and all comments received into an Excel spreadsheet to provide to program staff to facilitate the development of comment-response documents. Programs also have the option to designate a program contact to directly receive comments as they are posted in eComment.
Results to Date:
To date, DEP has used eComment for seven open comment periods. Overall, feedback from both the public and staff has been very positive. DEP will continue to evaluate eComment for its ease of comment submission and management.