Typically when the federal government announces a competition for funding, it is required to publish a proposal in the Federal Register, give the public at least 30 days to comment, and use those comments to inform its final guidelines. But given that Congress was six months late in setting a budget for this fiscal year, nothing has been running according to plan in Washington, D.C. these days. Time is tight.
So federal officials decided they had no choice but to request a waiver from those requirements and take a new approach for gathering input on today’s announcement about the new competition for early learning grants. They are directing the public to post comments of no more than 1,000 words each to the end of a blog post titled “Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) Program.”
As of this writing, 17 people had commented – all of whom are identified only by their first names.
It is not clear how long this unconventional comment period will last. In a telephone conference call with early childhood advocates this afternoon, officials stated that they would publish their “Notice Inviting Applications” by the end of the summer. The question is when will officials stop watching the comment stream? By the end of June? July? As late as August?
The grant process will be relatively short. By law, the federal government has to award the grants by December 31. And officials said that they wanted to give states six to eight weeks to submit their applications, which would put the deadline somewhere around the end of October. That leaves the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services – which are jointly administering the program – with just two months to review applications, announce winners and get the money out the door.
But will this social-media style forum satisfy critics who want to make sure that their voices are heard? Will there be any way for the public to know whether someone within the two departments running this grant program is actually reading what’s been posted? Do the departments have staff members dedicated to moderating and filtering that will be required?
Is this kind of open-air commenting system a breath of fresh air from the stale, slow processes of yesteryear? Or is it the beginning of the end of civilized public input? We’ll be watching to see how it all transpires.