Submitting Public Comments

This chapter outlines the importance and purpose of the public commenting process; provides an overview of different types of public comments you may submit; and walks through step-by-step instructions for writing effective public comments and staying involved in the process.


Public Comment Overview

Government agencies are in charge of developing and enforcing the rules that affect our everyday lives. One of the most important aspects of their rulemaking process is that they are often required to provide the public with an opportunity to participate. Your feedback on government regulations is a necessary and vital part of our democracy and gives you a chance to tell the government your opinion!


What is a public comment?

When federal agencies implement laws passed by Congress, they do so by creating rules and regulations. These rules and regulations go through several stages, and agencies must first file regulations as proposals in the Federal Register (a publication containing all federal regulations).

The Federal Register is kind of like the government’s daily newspaper, listing all the actions taken that day. You can access the Federal Register online, and you can sign up to receive an email with the Federal Register’s new additions every day.

Agencies are then typically required to accept comments on their proposal from all members of the public, and they are required to respond to those comments. Agencies also solicit public comments on other types of decisions besides new regulations, such as issuing certain permits, and when conducting some kinds of environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). For more about NEPA, see National Environmental Policy Act.

Public comments are a powerful way for you and your community to share your thoughts, concerns, and priorities with a government agency. To be effective, these comments should be:

    • Clearly written
    • Detailed
    • Directly applied to the proposed rule, regulation, permit, or project that the government is considering

In general, all public comments must be read and acknowledged by the agency, but government agencies can produce one response that addresses several related comments together.


Summary: Public Comment Contents


Who can make a public comment?

Because public comments are an important part of our democracy and the rulemaking process, all people, not just lawmakers or government officials, can participate in this process. The law protects your right to participate in the decision-making process and encourages everyone to submit relevant and specific feedback to help improve the rules, permits, and regulations proposed by our government.

For this reason, any person, group, or organization, as well as other government agencies can submit a public comment. Comments can be submitted anonymously or prepared on behalf of another person, organization, group, or federal agency.


Why are public comments so important?

Public comments are a very important part of the law-making process because they offer normal people like you and me (the “public”) the opportunity to actively participate in the creation of the rules and regulations that impact our everyday lives.

Public comments can provide lawmakers with a perspective that they may not have considered when they were writing a specific regulation.

The people who draft laws are not all-knowing. Using your comments to illustrate the specific ways in which a proposal might impact your particular community can lead to changes in the proposal for the better.

When it comes to the environment, public comments are a powerful tool for providing a government agency with facts and perspectives that might not have been considered in its original proposal. Remember to clearly tell the agency what you think they should do. Comments are not a vote – the agency will not add up the comments in favor and comments opposed and then act with the majority – but your comments can help an agency create a better, more informed proposal that addresses the public’s concerns.


When do public comments take place?

The timeline for submitting a public comment can change depending on the number of comments an agency receives or expects to receive, the size of the regulation being discussed, or the complexity of the proposal. For this reason, the process below is simply meant to provide a general idea of what this process might look like.

If you are considering submitting comments on a specific rule, proposal, or permit, contact the agency receiving the comments and ask what the applicable deadline is.

As a community advocate, you can request that an agency allow for more time for you to submit comments, and agencies may even consider comments that were filed late if there is a good reason for the delay. That said, you should be aware that government agencies are generally not required to consider comments that are filed late. Agencies will usually provide specific information in their proposal laying out the comment period and explaining whether they will consider comments that are filed late.


Federal Agency Public Comments – General Timeline


Types of Public Comments

An agency’s work does not consist only of rulemaking. Agencies sometimes recommend legislation to Congress and even help draft laws. Some other functions of government agencies can include deciding administrative legal cases, issuing orders, or even imposing penalties. For this reason, it is very important to know what kind of agency action you are dealing with when you choose to submit a public comment.

Rulemaking Comments

Permitting Comments

Enforcement Decision Comments

Lawmaking Comments


Before Writing a Public Comment


Setting the Stage

As you have already learned, commenting periods are typically short (normally 30-60 days). This means that if you know you will be filing comments on a particular permit or decision, it is very important to gather as much of the information you will need to write your public comment before the commenting period starts.

Some important steps you can take to prepare are:

1. Identify the Issues

2. Collect Relevant Information

3. Do Your Research


Getting Others Involved

Remember, there is always strength in numbers! Here are a few ways you can help get other voices involved in your project to increase the likelihood that your public comments will be successful.

Community Organizing

Identifying Community Partners

Writing a Good Public Comment

Once you have compiled your information, it is time to write your comment on the proposed project. The public notice should tell you the date that the comments are due and where to send the comments. It is important to submit comments by the stated deadline; you may lose the opportunity to challenge agency decisions if you do not submit comments within this period, and the agency may not review or respond to comments received after the deadline.


What makes a good public comment?

The most valuable public comments will be clear, organized, fact-driven, and to the point. Remember that the agency will have to read through many hundreds of similar comments and opinions, some of which can be very long, so making yours easy to read, direct, and clearly written will help you stand out. You can find an example of a public comment template in Appendix C-5.

You should give your comments careful thought and make every word count. Keep in mind your ultimate goal. Is it to stop the facility from being built at all, or is it to ensure that particular safeguards are put into place? What you say in your comments and how you say it will depend on your goal, and on the harm you are trying to avoid.


Here are some general tips to consider when writing your public comment:


What if, even after conducting your research, you have unanswered questions?

Include those questions in your comment! Even if you do not know the answer, you can ask questions in your comment about the possible impacts of the facility, and you can tell the agency that no information is available about your concern. You can even ask the agency to delay making any decision until more information is available, and tell them what information you think they specifically need to gather and publish before making an informed decision.

Remember that as a member of the community, you are likely to know more about the project’s neighborhood and the surrounding areas than the government agency does. Tell them about local resources that will be impacted, playgrounds, other pollution sources, or whatever information you think will be helpful. Say why these resources are important – don’t assume the reader will understand.

Finally, be sure to include your name, address, email, and telephone number so that the agency can respond to your comments.


What type of information should you include?


Public Comment Do’s and Don’ts

What to Do After You Submit Your Public Comment


Stay involved!

Congratulations! You have finally submitted your public comment. Now what? Don’t forget about it – one thing that you can do to increase the chances that your comment is addressed by an agency is to follow up after the comment has been submitted. When you submit your comment, usually you will be provided with a comment tracking number by the agency or by the system. Write down that tracking number!

Here are some ideas on how you can stay involved:

Additional Resources

Here are a few external resources that may be particularly helpful: