the WHITE HOUSEPresident Barack Obama

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Cass Sunstein on a new executive summary requirement that will make regulations clearer and more transparent.

A longstanding complaint about Federal regulation, one that we encountered when President Obama first took office, is that many rules are just too complicated and hard to understand. The concern is bipartisan. It comes from small and large businesses, public interest groups, state and local governments, and countless individual citizens. So we set out to change that.

Early last year, the President issued an Executive Order on regulation requiring rules to be “accessible, consistent, written in plain language, and easy to understand.” He also said that regulations “shall be adopted through a process that involves public participation,” including an “open exchange of information and perspectives.” That open exchange cannot occur if proposed rules, presented for public comment, are complex and obscure. And if people are being asked to comply with rules, they are entitled to have a clear sense of what they are being asked to do.

This week the Administration took a major step in the direction of greater clarity and simplicity. Building on the President’s Executive Order, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs has directed agencies to provide the public with brief, straightforward executive summaries of all complex and lengthy rules. These summaries will include separate descriptions of all key provisions and policy choices.  They will explain the need for the rule and offer a succinct statement of its legal basis. The summaries will also include a table describing the costs and benefits of the rule.

The use of clear, simple executive summaries will make it far easier for members of the public to understand and to scrutinize proposed rules – and thus help to improve them. And for final rules, such summaries will make it far easier for people to understand what they are being asked to do.

This week’s action is closely connected to many others, requiring the use of plain language in government documents, calling for simplification and reduction of red-tape, and requiring agencies to streamline and to eliminate outmoded or unjustified requirements (the “regulatory lookback”). Such steps are already savings billions of dollars in annual regulatory costs and eliminating millions of hours of annual paperwork requirements. We continue to explore ways to simplify and streamline the regulatory process – to produce, in the President’s words, a regulatory system that protects “public health, welfare, safety, and our environment while promoting economic growth, innovation, competitiveness, and job creation.”

Cass Sunstein is the Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs