XVIII.3 May + June 2011
Page: 36
Digital Citation

Public policy and HCI in the U.S. context

Jonathan Lazar

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Although most of us working in HCI have no background in public policy, non-governmental and governmental policy decisions have a major impact on the work that we do. This is true across the globe. As researchers we are used to collaborating internationally; therefore, I know not everyone within the research community is comfortable discussing public policy issues, which are often country-specific in focus. Whereas research in HCI tends to be international, public policy tends to be national. As an example, this article describes the many U.S. government policy actions that have impacted the field of human-computer interaction during the year 2010. Recent articles in the Interacting with Public Policy forum have discussed public policy and the implications on HCI in Sweden, Brazil, and France.

There's a misperception in the U.S. that the government takes action primarily when a bill is passed and signed into law. Yet there are many actions with a direct impact on the field of HCI that do not involve any action from the legislative branch. Furthermore, when the federal government does not take action, the states often step in and make decisions.

Much of HCI-related public policy would fall under the general category of science and technology policy. However, while there's a large community of people who do science and technology policy, there is very little out there about design policy (AIGA's Design for Democracy project is a notable exception). The science and technology policy topics that get the most attention are issues like global warming, stem cell research, nanotechnology, and genetics. Computer science is not often the topic getting lots of attention in science-policy circles, and when computer science does get attention there, it's usually over issues like encryption, cyberattacks, and digital-rights management, while HCI gets virtually no mention.

One of the biggest differences between HCI and many other science and technology policy issues (such as stem cell research) is that HCI issues are generally nonpartisan and not influenced by morality. Interface design isn't a matter of Democratic or Republican politics; there isn't anyone who considers HCI work immoral or against their religious beliefs. Generally, the arguments against HCI are related to the cost of new, more usable, or more accessible interfaces.

In the science- and technology-policy community, you often hear discussions of the differences between science for policy and policy for science. Policy for science is the implementation of policies that influence scientific research, such as research-funding mechanisms, rules on what types of research can and cannot be performed (and how they're funded), and regulations related to human-subjects research. Science for policy is the use of scientific research, such as data on climate change or data on intrusions into government computing systems, for policymaking. In the context of HCI work, an example of policy for science could be how funding mechanisms at the National Science Foundation (NSF) are changing, and an example of science for policy could be how data from the HCI community on the usability and accessibility of voting machines and government websites has been used in policymaking discussions. Since our work is a combination of science and design, I would offer that within the HCI world we often experience policy for design, in which government regulations specify how we must design devices and interfaces. And we could theoretically experience design for policy, in which research on design could influence how policymakers communicate (although I haven't seen much of that).

back to top  The Three Branches of U.S. Government

Let me present a refresher on the basics from U.S. high school government class. There are three branches of government at the federal level: executive, legislative, and judicial. The legislative branch makes laws; the judicial branch interprets laws; and the executive branch carries out laws. Simple, right? It's actually much more complex than that. And actions in all three branches have had an impact on the HCI community.

Legislative. There are actions taken from the legislative branch that relate directly to the HCI community. The original Rehabilitation Act of 1973—amended in 1998 to create Section 508, implemented in 2001—is the foundation of U.S. laws requiring all government technology to be accessible for people with disabilities. The Help America Vote Act, signed into law in 2002, led to new voting interfaces being used by a majority of American voters. Since interface accessibility and voting machines are two areas where public policy has the largest impact on HCI, it is no surprise that these two pieces of legislation are important to the field of HCI.

More recently, the Plain Writing Act of 2010 (signed by President Obama on October 13, 2010) requires government agencies to provide information to the public (including on websites) in plain and understandable English; agency websites must provide information on the steps being taken to move toward clear language (more information can be found at www.plainlanguage.gov). The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010, signed into law on October 8, 2010, requires accessibility features on new smart-phones, captioning on television shows distributed online, accessibility of emergency-warning information, and accessible menus on DVDs and televisions, among other requirements.

Other legislative efforts related to HCI in the 2009-2010 congressional session did not succeed. For instance, the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2009 would have required all voting-machine interfaces to offer hard-copy verification to voters. The Technology Bill of Rights for the Blind Act of 2010 would have required the Secretary of Commerce to create standards for nonvisual access to consumer electronic devices, electronic kiosks, home appliances, or office technology devices, and require that all of those interfaces meet the new standards within two years of the date of the act's passage.

It's important to remember there is a delicate balance between the three branches of government, and a change in party power (or an election) can have an impact on HCI policy. Actions related to workplace regulation on ergonomics (certainly a topic of interest to the HCI community) in 2000 and 2001 illustrate this. The following text, taken directly from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (a pro-business lobbying group that was against the ergonomic regulations), summarizes what happened: "Although a final regulation was issued just after the 2000 election, the Chamber [of Commerce] continued fighting. Shortly after the 107th Congress convened in early 2001 [when Bush took office], the Senate and House passed a joint resolution invalidating the ergonomics regulation under the never-before-used provisions of the Congressional Review Act (CRA). President Bush signed the resolution on March 20, 2001." There wasn't much activity on this topic in the 2000s; then, recently, officials from the Obama Labor Department publicly expressed interest in pushing for new regulation and a stronger focus on ergonomics in the workplace.

Executive. When a bill is signed into law, it is just the beginning. There's the rulemaking process, the implementation of the rules, and checking for compliance. A fair amount of policymaking happens in the rulemaking process. When a law specifies that actions take place, the law rarely specifies the details. Instead, the details are decided upon in the rulemaking process, which focuses on public comment and typically involves the following: the advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (which the public can respond to), a proposed rule, a public comment period on the proposed rule, and then a final rule.

These are all areas where the executive branch takes the lead. For instance, in 2010, the Department of Justice began a process of rulemaking on clarifications to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA, which applies to any place or organization defined as a public accommodation (such as stores, restaurants, hotels, convention centers) was signed into law in 1990, before much of our current technology infrastructure existed. In 2010 the Department of Justice began the rulemaking process to clarify accessibility requirements for websites, movie and video descriptions, and next-generation 911 services and equipment. USACM (the U.S. Public Policy Committee of ACM) has been involved in crafting a response to that advanced notice of proposed rulemaking.

Public policy also comes from the executive branch in other ways, such as executive orders and memos. For instance, in July 2010 the Office of Management and Budget and the Chief Information Officer of the Federal Government issued a memo in which they noted the Section 508 requirements for electronic and information technology had not been followed in recent years. Compliance activities required by the law had not taken place. They have since detailed the steps that will take place to move forward and improve accessibility of government interfaces. Other agencies, such as the U.S. Access Board, the General Services Administration, and the Department of Justice, have also been involved with that action related to Section 508. HCI-related issues also pop up in places that you wouldn't immediately expect. For instance, both the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Department of Labor (DOL) have dealt with interfaces recently. The DOT has addressed the accessibility of airline websites and kiosks, and the DOL has addressed the accessibility of online employment websites.

It's also important to note that a lot of the HCI expertise within the federal government lies within the executive branch. We have had research presentations at HCI conferences for years, from individuals working at the Census Bureau, the Social Security Administration, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Cancer Institute, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, the General Services Administration, and other agencies and offices. To put it bluntly, HCI expertise within the federal government is generally located within the executive branch.

Judicial. There is much less action in the judicial branch related to HCI than in the other two federal branches, but lawsuits and administrative complaints related to HCI have brought public attention. For instance, the National Federation of the Blind sued the Target Corporation in 2006 because the website Target.com was stated to be inaccessible. In preliminary court rulings in 2006 and 2007, the judge confirmed that the Americans with Disabilities Act does apply to websites of public accommodations. The case was settled out of court for $6 million, to be paid to members of the class-action suit. Separately, a number of lawsuits have taken place related to voting-machine interfaces in the past decade. The two most prominent HCI and public-policy issues in the U.S. continue to be interface accessibility and voting machines.

There are lots of unfunded mandates in which a law says one thing, but there's no budget allotted for the follow-up actions so the law becomes irrelevant.

Other actions take place that technically occur within the executive branch but popularly (and incorrectly) are viewed as judicial actions. For instance, in November 2010 the National Federation of the Blind filed an administrative complaint with the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education, detailing how campus-wide information technology interfaces at Pennsylvania State University were inaccessible, discriminatory, and in violation of the law. That complaint is pending. Previous actions have jointly been taken in 2010, by the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, related to inaccessible e-book reader interfaces. These settlements related to e-books resulted in letters being sent to all university presidents in the U.S., stating that universities may not adopt inaccessible e-book readers (such as the Kindle DX) for educational use without providing accommodations for students with disabilities. Again, while these are not technically judicial branch activities (they are executive branch activities), these tend to be viewed by the public as judicial activities.

back to top  Funding Mechanisms

A large part of HCI research in the United States is funded by the government: primarily through the Human-Centered Computing Cluster and other groups at the NSF, but also through other agencies, such as the Department of Education and Department of Energy. These budgets are not protected. They can be cut at any time (and may be cut due to the 2011 political environment, encouraging responsible and limited spending). Therefore, it's important for HCI researchers and practitioners to get out into the greater community and talk to the general public about the broader impacts of your funded research. While it's not an activity that many scientists and designers are comfortable with, it's important to help ensure continued funding for work in HCI. Keep in mind that members of the general community want to see how theoretical research can lead to applied research, innovation, and jobs. That's where the public demand is.

Policies are often implemented through the budget. You don't need to pass a law specifying that HCI research is unimportant—if the budget items for HCI research were cut, it would accomplish the same thing. There are lots of unfunded mandates in which a law says one thing, but there's no budget allotted for the follow-up actions so the law becomes irrelevant. Passing a law about an important topic is not the end; it's the beginning. Funding is important. And while the U.S. Office of Management and Budget oversees federal spending, actual research and development spending is spread across more than 20 different agencies. It's not like other countries that have a ministry of science or something similar to support research and development in science and technology.

The America Competes Reauthorization Act of 2010, which became public law 111-358 (signed by President Obama on January 4, 2011), requires that the NSF implement an increased focus on "broader impacts to society" in all grant funding. This includes increased focus on and enhanced review of all proposals based on their broader impacts to society, and requires universities to either provide or facilitate training on the broader effects of research on society. How HCI research is funded will be shifting, with more emphasis on the practical results to society than on purely theoretical research. It's important that we get involved in this discussion, as the type of human-computer interaction research that gets funded is likely to change.

back to top  State Initiatives

Historically, there's always been tension between federal-level and state-level actions. When the federal government doesn't take action, sometimes the states step in and do so. This has happened both in terms of other areas of science (funding stem-cell research), safety (clean air and cancer prevention), and even in HCI-related areas (voting machines). For instance, 33 states currently require a voter-verifiable paper record. There's no national standard (the bill that would nationally require paper trails, mentioned earlier in this article, did not pass in 2010). Maryland provides a good example of what happened: The state uses touchscreen interfaces with no paper-verification trail. It has decertified the use of this process for elections; new machines (optical scans) were supposed to be in use by 2010, but due to state budget cuts, this shift was pushed back to 2012.

Another big HCI issue at the state level is texting while driving, or at a broader level, the use of smart phones while operating machinery (see the May+June 2010 issue of interactions for an article about this topic). States are now passing or enhancing laws that specify what type of interaction is legal and what type of interaction isn't while operating machinery. Clearly, this is of interest to the HCI community because of both our expertise in the topic and the likelihood that public policies may influence design. Some HCI issues relate to education, and historically, states have primarily been in charge of education. Therefore, issues like interfaces for e-books and accessible educational websites have tended to be state-coordinated issues, even though federal regulations cover them. Many states have their own laws related to interface accessibility and the use of instructional technology in education.

Public policy does have an impact on the field of human-computer interaction, not only in the United States but also in other countries. Public policies change rapidly, so it's important to keep informed. You should get involved locally, nationally, and internationally and use your knowledge of science and design to inform and influence public policy in human-computer interaction. I've said it before; I will say it again. When it comes to public policy and HCI, think globally and act locally!

* Further Reading:



Comprehensive list of U.S. state-level accessibility laws: http://accessibility.gtri.gatech.edu/sitid/stateLawAtGlance.php/

Budnick, P. Opinion: Is a new ergonomics workplace standard in the works? Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Bulletin 52, 4 (2009); http://www.hfes.org/web/BulletinPdf/0409bulletin.pdf#zoom=75/

Hochheiser, H. and Lazar, J. HCI and societal issues: A framework for engagement. international Journal of Human-Computer Interaction 23, 3 (2007), 339–374.

Lazar, J., Jaeger, P., Adams, A., et. al. Up in the air: Are airlines following the new DOT rules on equal pricing for people with disabilities when websites are inaccessible? Government Information Quarterly 27, 4 (2010), 329–336.

Lok, C. Science for the masses. Nature 465, 7297 (2010), 416–418.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce's statement on OSHA ergonomic regulations; http://www.uschamber.com/lssues/labor/oshas-ergonomlcs-regulatlon/

back to top  Author

Jonathan Lazar is a professor in the department of computer and information sciences at Towson University, founder and director of the Universal Usability Laboratory, author of many books on human-computer interaction. He currently serves as SIGCHI chair of public policy.

back to top  Footnotes

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1962438.1962449

back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. Governor Deval Patrick signing legislation that bans text-messaging while driving for all Massachusetts drivers, prohibits junior operators from using cell phones, and institutes new license renewal procedures for mature drivers.

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