After a rough estimate of 4,500 minutes — or 75 hours — of work, Daniel Barkowitz and Alyssa Dobson, who respectively served as the primary and alternate representative of financial aid administrators during the Department of Education’s (ED) most recent negotiated rulemaking session, tacked on some additional virtual time to reflect on their experience participating in the regulatory process.
In recapping his experience Barkowitz, an FAAC® and assistant vice president for financial aid and veterans affairs at Valencia College, had a host of adjectives to describe the monthslong session as a first time negotiated rulemaking committee member.
“Overwhelming, thorough, educational, dare I say fun, process-oriented and detailed,” Barkowitz said. “It is an interesting place to do advocacy.”
That guesstimated 75 hours of work is not an exaggeration and for Dobson, who has participated in previous committees and emphasized how important it is to recognize just how involved the process can be.
“If it is a busy time at your regular job, definitely take that into consideration because it's essentially like taking on another full-time job for the duration, not just for that week,” Dobson explained. “You're going to be receiving information in the month in between [committee meetings], you're going to be receiving different proposals. You're going to be having meetings outside of the public purview. There's really just a lot that goes into it that is not public facing that you need to be mindful of.”
Operating in a remote environment was a new process for ED and committee members alike. Dobson, who participated in the pre-pandemic, in-person negotiated rulemaking sessions, found that the virtual format functionally worked, but preferred the atmosphere of negotiating in person.
“I definitely missed the discussions and the camaraderie that occurs when you're not in that public space,” she said. “We ended up figuring out a few ways to meet virtually outside of the constructed timeframes that ED had put out, but still, I don't think it was as frequent. It was a little clunkier.”
In terms of logistical setups, Barkowitz found it necessary to use both paper and digital tools to track all of the resources that ED was referencing.
“I prefer to do things electronically when I can and in this case, because it was so detailed, I actually resorted to paper, to be honest,” Barkowitz said. He detailed how he used a binder to organize the most recent versions of text so he could flag sections he wanted to either question or comment on. “When a topic came up, I would resort back to the PDF and … find the topic.”
Dobson, noting the impracticality of printing out all of the resources provided throughout the committee work, similarly made use of all of her digital devices — two computer screens to display the Zoom meetings, issue papers, and a Slack channel for negotiators.
Throughout the process, Barkowitz found that there were benefits to operating in a fully remote environment. For instance, since everyone was on a laptop he could make use of online resources, communicate with a variety of teams, and even monitor Twitter, where online discussion helped incorporate more voices into the process in real time.
“Those kinds of resource options wouldn't have been available at an in-person event, or if it was, you would have had to have your laptop up and really be sort of focused that way,” Barkowitz said. “When it's virtual you're already on the computer so it's just another screen. That ability for the public to weigh in in such a visible and productive way I think really helped hold us to account and shape the negotiations.”
The virtual landscape changed the way in which Barkowitz connected with committee members, but the overall process really helped spur professional connections.
“I was impressed at how we were able to form connections, both within the time and then because we had each other's contact information,” Barkowitz said. “Negotiators could reach each other outside of the formal times at the table as well, so there were opportunities to make connections.”
As the regulatory process continues, Dobson recommends that anyone considering whether to apply to sit on a negotiated rulemaking committee get involved in the process.
“Do it, honestly, that's really my only recommendation. Make sure it's a topic that you're familiar with, because there's so much that surrounds it. Everything's just really complicated,” Dobson said. “The more familiar you are, the better.”
Barkowitz said the most important part of the negotiated rulemaking process is participation.
“This is advocacy, so the more practice you can get the better. Part of that is when there's a call for public comments, on pending negotiations or just a general comment, don't be afraid to make the comment,” Barkowitz said. “Hold up your hand and be willing to commit yourself, but also make sure you've got your institutional support.”
While the process can be time-consuming, negotiated rulemaking can offer participants unique insight into federal regulations and help them become more deeply enmeshed in higher education policy discussions.
“Many of us are so busy in our day to day jobs in the financial aid offices that sometimes we're so focused on getting processing done, that we don't give enough time to understanding what's going on,” Barkowitz said. “Reading Today's News, following all the department’s announcements and keeping yourself abreast of the most recent developments, that's all really important. Even if you're not going to negotiate, it's really important, but it also helps shape and frame my experience.”
ED is slated to begin its next bout of Negotiated Rulemaking during the week of January 18. Stay tuned to Today’s News for coverage and more details on the action taken by the committee.
Publication Date: 1/14/2022