How Environmental Agencies Are Revolutionizing Comment Management

Thomas Mullen
September 23, 2016

State environmental agencies go by many names — Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), among others. But no matter the nomenclature, their task is the same: to enforce their state’s environmental laws and protect its air, water and land.

In this role, environmental regulators often end up as referees between the citizens and businesses whose activities and interests affect the region’s natural resources. And, like referees, you usually only hear their names when something goes wrong. An oil spill. An invasive fish decimating a native species. Groundwater pollution. Such hot-button issues are everyday subjects for a DEQ or DEP, which have the critical — sometimes impossible — job of solving such catastrophes to the closest satisfaction of a seemingly endless collection of stakeholders. Controversy is expected. Lawsuits are common.

However, there’s an in-house task familiar to every environmental administrator that can be just as precarious as the delicate environmental issues they monitor. Namely, the hundreds or even thousands of public comment periods they’re legally required to conduct and manage each year.

A few of these comment periods are related to highly charged issues and can be the focus of an intense amount of public interest, generating thousands of comments from community members and fellow agencies alike. We’ve touched on the benefits of using public comment software in these instances to analyze, organize and respond to a large influx of citizen input. In fact, these high-profile cases largely resemble impactful public comment periods carried out by other agencies, such as a Department of Transportation conducting an environmental impact statement for a large infrastructure project.

But while these high-profile behemoths may garner the headlines, the bulk of a DEQ’s comment management workload is quietly represented by a vast army of less visible but no less staff-intensive matters, including comment periods related to rule changes, permits, policy updates, reports, clean-up plans, and public engagement programs. For example, before a DEQ can issue an air permit to a private company, it might be required to put the matter before surrounding residents and businesses for 30 days to gauge if any strong opposition to the application exists. Some of these comment periods do end up drawing significant comments. Most don’t. But when you aggregate even less contentious comment events a few hundred times across several different divisions — air, water, and land, for example — the mere act of keeping track of them all quickly becomes an issue in itself. And, for a host of reasons, the potential for an administrative nightmare is clear.

First off, incoming comments can take multiple forms, from letters to emails to faxes to electronic comments. Likewise, the methods for keeping track of and responding to them within an agency can vary from division to division and from project to project, often consisting of a hodgepodge of jerry-rigged solutions: from Microsoft Word to Access to Excel, Socrata, or some combination thereof. Even the simple of act of keeping track of when these comment periods begin and end is enough to make a DEQ staff member feel like Sisyphus, doomed to repeatedly keep pushing their personal boulder up that hill.

Of course, the danger for environmental staff is more than just frustration. Borrowing the referee comparison again, every DEQ lives with the reality that even the slightest mistake is an open invitation for an opponent’s challenge — usually the legal kind.

It’s for these reasons that SmartComment developed its comment management tools with the specific needs of a DEQ staff in mind. Not only does SmartComment give an environmental staff the horsepower to manage thousands of comments related to a single comment period, but our project manager allows them to launch, organize, and maintain multiple comment periods as easily as the computer files on their desktops. An administrator can automatically set a comment period to start and end on a specific time and date, then populate its location, topics and other criteria with a few mouse clicks. When a comment period is active, staff can check in at any point for a real-time look at all of its latest data and submissions. And even after the comment period has closed, all of its data remains permanently available in case of a future review. Comment periods can also be partitioned by department or any other designation to ensure only appropriate staff members or divisions have access to a given comment event.

Not that we could have anticipated all these needs on our own, of course. We’ve had the pleasure of developing SmartComment’s DEQ-facing project manager while working hand-in-hand with regulators in some of the most environmentally sensitive states in the country, who say it has literally transformed the way they manage input from the public — from the big-ticket policy proposals down through the labyrinth of smaller regulatory actions requiring a public input component.

As we continue to talk and work with a wider network of forward-thinking environmental agencies, we look forward to developing even more innovations that can continue to ease the burden of the manual comment management process, while helping DEQs realize increased levels of transparency and public accessibility.

After all, the Earth’s referees really should have the latest gear.