engineering and rules consultants

Rule-Writing Services

What's the need for standards and regulations improvement?

The organizations and committees responsible for drafting the text of government regulations, industry standards, and building codes bring together talented individuals with many years of experience on the rules they maintain. However, these committees sometimes lack experience in technical writing for broad audiences or in developing the Internet-accessible and database-linked documents that serve us as handy references these days. Committee members' in depth experience with the rule they maintain can prevent them from understanding the frustrations of new users or how the rule can better serve the needs of the wider community that references it. FACT+FANCY can provide your organization with tools and services for making rules that are easier to learn and use. We have great respect for the countless hard-learned lessons embodied in contemporary environmental, health, safety, building, and land-use rules, and we strive to more efficiently bring this historical experience as well as the expertise of rule-writing committees to the public.

I'm not sure what this paragraph in the new International Mechanical Code means, so I'll assume they were trying to say what was written in the old mechanical code and approve your occupancy permit.
--paraphrase of a building inspector from a mid-western US city, who had earlier ordered rework to meet the new code.

Most of us on this great globe live in a constructed environment -- whether it is a road, well, and septic (or outhouse) in rural areas, high-rises and subways in urban areas, or the subdivisions and shopping malls of suburbia. We rely on widespread and interconnected labor-saving and life-enhancing devices for shelter, sustenance, health, transport, communication... at home, at work, and at play. For better or worse, intentionally or not, we have built the world we live in, influencing ourselves. This has been going on for centuries or longer, but in recent decades the prevalence of our constructions has amplified both undesired outcomes and the need for coordination.

Beside this network of devices, we have created a network of texts and drawings: designs, instruction manuals, as well as statutes, ordinances, administrative regulations, industry standards, other codes, standard methods, policies, and procedures (loosely referred to as rules in this web site). Rules can help ensure that products made by diverse organizations interact effectively; rules can also help minimize negative unexpected consequences. Rules range from the World Wide Web Consortium (w3.org) Recommendations that, if complied with by your web browser, make the web page you are currently reading display as intended -- to the electronic product-safety standards for preventing your computer from starting a fire or damaging your eyes -- to the procedures companies use to ensure product or service quality. Many rules are aimed at reducing unintended consequences: from auto-accidents to traffic jams, from the rapid global spread of diseases via airplanes and ships to air pollution and rivers you cannot swim or fish in, from the irritation or coughing a new carpet at your office might cause you to suburban skies whose stars are obscured by streetlights. Often these rules are a big help to the design and production of goods and services, but as their number and complexity grows, their many little inefficiencies and ambiguities can add up to a thicket of red tape. Confusing rules get written for many difficult to solve reasons and, while we do not expect to change these causes much, we maintain an ongoing Catalog of Rule Problems, Causes, and Consequences.

Most would agree that time and resources spent on learning rules should be kept to a minimum so that, if we choose, we might have more time to be creative and industrious while ensuring that our work product is safe for people and critters, promotes a healthy environment, and interacts suitably with other people and devices.

That's where FACT+FANCY comes in: we provide services, software, and training for making rules easier to learn and use. We specialize in the human and information technology aspects of rule writing, so you can focus on the content. Our technical background allows us to rapidly understand your objectives, so we can help you express them in the rule text. Good style and good content go hand-in-hand, so the people responsible for both must be able to communicate and work together. If you like, we can provide training on our methods during any project. Some of our rule-writing methods and tools are described below.


This gasoline and oil storage regulation has so many exemptions and special cases, I'm not sure what the general rule is.
--paraphrase of a tank installer

A well organized rule reflects a well organized understanding of the community that may use and follow the rule, the problems the rule may help solve, and related rules. A good place to start is to organize the information available on these topics into a database.

While flexibility is needed for unique situations, and while organization may be a talent only habit or inclination can impart, here are some widely recognized guides for organizing rules and procedures:

  1. Start with the rule applicability. First describe the groups of entities the rule will apply to. Then describe the entities completely excluded from the entire rule.
  2. Provide definitions.
  3. List general requirements.
  4. Finally, list any special requirements or exemptions organized following the same entity-groups described in step 1.

At FACT+FANCY, we have monitored the development and implementation of many rules and regulations for our professional practices, commented on draft rules, and served on company policy- and government regulation-writing committees. We have seen how unforeseen events, time shortages, and politics can tangle-up a rule-writing process. The docket-automation tools and rule-writing services we provide are designed to help you overcome these challenges. Don't let poor rule organization hinder implementation. Make it easier for your staff to teach folks how to follow a rule, or even just teach themselves how to inspect for compliance.


The 2002 and previous editions of the American Concrete Institute's Building Code Requirements for Structural Concrete and Commentary (ACI 318) inconsistently used terminology and notations. Sometimes the same words or symbols designated slightly different things, and sometimes slightly different words or symbols designated the same thing. The 2005 edition provided a unique definition for each term and notation, and it consolidated definitions in one list.

This was causing genuine confusion. It took a major effort by the task force to correct.
--paraphrase of an ACI Committee 318 member at an October 2005 seminar. (See also Sharon L. Wood in Structures 2005: Metropolis & Beyond, American Society of Civil Engineers, and S. K. Ghosh, PCI Journal, September-October 2004, page 95.)

Imagine words were bags for holding meaning: it would be nice for a word to hold just the meaning you wanted and nothing else, like a netted bag that could hold oysters while sand and water drained out. No such word exists. The sound and style of a word, the meaning you intend for it, the context you place it in, and a reader's background will all influence the meaning a reader takes from a word you try to define. And, like a bag, any word will overflow or leak if you try to stuff it too full of meaning.

As ACI 318-05 demonstrated, publishing and following a consistent set of definitions facilitates both drafting and using rules. But a list of definitions is just the beginning. Definitions will only take shape by the careful use of each word throughout a rule.

Here are some steps we use at FACT+FANCY:

  1. Assemble a list of terms and definitions used in documents the rule will reference and that reference the rule.
  2. Select the terms needed for the new rule and add new terms if absolutely necessary. Look these words up in the dictionary, in relevant reference books, and do an Internet search on them. Consider their etymology and alternate meanings. For words with long and varied histories, look for different words and consider alternate forms that might jar readers from habits of thought.
  3. Circulate a draft list of definitions to experienced practitioners.
  4. Encourage review of the definitions during public comment.
  5. Consider a term's usage and meanings in the entire docket with each use in the new rule.
  6. Reading George Orwell's 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language" never hurts!

Docket Automation via Web-accessible Databases

OK. If this is what is required, we'll do it. But, it is going to cost a lot, and is it going to do anyone any good? Why did they make this requirement in the first place? If we don't get a good answer, we've got room for the lawyers who drafted this along with a few consulting engineers in the foundations of the C2 building extension.
--paraphrase of joking by a maintenance manager and an engineer at a manufacturing plant, New York, USA

Most government regulations, proposed regulations, and preambles can now be retrieved via the Internet in electronic formats that allow automated searching for key words (Internet posting for downloading in searchable formats). Some organizations are also Internet posting at least portions of their rulemaking docket -- the studies, testimony, and public comments collected during rule drafting. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's e-docket was shutdown in 2005 as part of the migration to the Federal Docket Management System (www.regulations.gov). Though very helpful, these efforts only hint and the potential for web-accessible databases to facilitate making rules that are easier to learn and use.

A database, like an encyclopedia, is a collection of entries, typically in tables, containing both the desired information and cross-references (linking terms) to other pertinent tables and entries. Lots of computer software is available for automating databases. Some of the largest databases, including some U.S. Census Bureau databases, are implemented with open-source software, which can legally be downloaded and used for free. You can turn your rules from headache-makers into handy tools by, in effect, turning them into web-accessible databases: an organized collection of definitions and requirements with links to additional details in the material you assembled to draft the rule.

FACT+FANCY's docket-automation software and services have this goal: every single rule requirement shall be linked to the docket entries it is based on. Any document, preferably a specific section or quote from a document, that you rely on when drafting a requirement is listed in an index table for that requirement. Text versions and images of these docket materials (or quotes from and citations to copyrighted materials) are also stored in the database, and linked to the index table for each requirement.

With web-posted rules linked to their dockets in an online database, our friendly maintenance manager and engineer from New York could click on the heading for a requirement or paragraph to view a searchable table of accident histories, case-studies, expert testimony, published reports, etc. that explain how this pain-in-the-butt rule might actually be saving their ass... or keeping the creek where their kids fish clean.

Here's to the day a look at the docket would show such useful purposes for each requirement in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations or other sets of rules. But, creating automated dockets is as much about encouraging better rule writing as providing a tool for rule users. It keeps the facts closer to rule writers, promoting rules whose letter and spirit are more transparently linked.

Guidance Documents

Why should I have to read a 20 page regulation and 40 pages of guidance? I'd be much happier with a 30 page regulation I could understand without guidance?
--paraphrase of an environmental manager, mid-sized US manufacturer

FACT+FANCY teammates have helped draft guidance documents and compliance aids. These are expensive to produce and can lead to divergences between an honest reading of the rule text and accumulating guidance interpretations. In the extreme, for some vaguely-worded and complex government regulations, issuing case-by-case guidance documents and oral opinions allows rulemaking outside of the required administrative procedures and public comment. Indeed, we deal with some smaller government bureaus that seem like their confusing regulations, so that anyone doing anything related to the regulation has to call them, and they hear what's going on.

Writing understandable rules in the first place is a much better solution than confusing rules plus guidance documents. The savings from not producing user guides with each rule can more than pay for the cost of docket automation. Any background needed for the initial rule publication can be included in the public docket, and any needed subsequent interpretations can be linked to relevant requirements via a separate database.

Outcome and Technique Specifying - Getting the Best from Both

This subject is often presented as an either/or issue: market-based versus command-and-control regulations. Outcome requirements, which set a goal without dictating how the goal is to be met, are often associated with pollutant trading, where companies that outperform a goal earn corresponding credits, which they can sell to companies that fail to meet the goal. Technique-specifying requirements, on the other hand, detail the equipment and methods required for compliance, which can lead to inflexibility and inefficiency; these are often called command-and-control regulations.

In practice, both types of requirements have advantages and disadvantages. FACT+FANCY can help you integrate the best aspects of both outcome and technique specifying. It helps to understand how the cost of information to demonstrate compliance compares with the cost of labor and equipment to comply. It also helps to consider the resources available to different sectors of the regulated community.

We don't want to do a Ph.D. study on this. Just tell us what we need to do, and keep it as simple as possible.

Don't tell us what to do, just tell us what you want, and we'll figure out the best way to do it. Then we'll collect whatever information is needed to prove it.

The first line is a sentiment you might hear from a smaller business; you might hear the second from a large organization with talented science, engineering, and legal staff and probably with unique operations. To satisfy both, you can first specify outcome requirements and then describe your recommended optional but sufficient techniques for compliance. This resembles the way general rules are followed by specific worked examples in engineering and science text books. Please contact us for examples relevant to you.

Incorporating Engineering and Science Models

Engineering and science models partially justify and determine the requirements in all of the rules FACT+FANCY consults on, some of which are often called science-based regulations. Sometimes, these models are incorporated by reference, for instance, hydrology models in storm-water regulations. Other times, charts and tables in rules are generated by such models, for instance, brittle fracture charts in the American Petroleum Institute's steel tank standards and pressure-relief discharge-pipe sizing tables in the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers' Safety Standard for Refrigeration Systems (ASHRAE-15).

Science and engineering models are typically implemented via math formulas or computer programs. Attention to how these formulas and programs are used in practice pays off when incorporating these models by reference or using their output in rules. Here are some steps we recommend:

  1. Provide a written performance specification first, followed by optional but sufficient mathematical formulas or computer programs for meeting the performance specification. This allows newer methods or updated software to be used. It also keeps people's focus on the performance goal, rather than the numbers being spit out by a formula or computer code.
  2. Allow situation- or site-specific measurement to overrule models or rule-specified inputs, with rule administrator approval of measurement methods.
  3. When setting rules for model inputs, try to select real things measured in well-known units as inputs rather than imaginary or abstract parameters specific to a particular model. This helps keep your rule current as models change and generally reduces confusion.
  4. Perform a sensitivity analysis that checks what happens to the model output as various input parameters change, alone or in combination. Be aware of the "knobs" model users can tweak to influence the model's output.
  5. Pay attention to model performance at the high and low extremes of the range of a parameter, and to model boundary conditions in general.
  6. Avoid making users read numbers off graphs, use tables instead.
  7. If a table is generated by a math formula, incorporate the math formula into the rule and include the tabulated output in an informative appendix.
  8. Most importantly, allow the rule administrator discretion to review or reject specific model implementations and inputs. This authority helps keep model-users honest.

Collecting Use Statistics, Informal Feedback, and Formal Comments Via the Web

Many people are hesitant to provide formal comments on a rule, so useful feedback may be missed. Online editions of rules can include "comment on this requirement" buttons and allow two types of comments: formal comments, handled according to your current formal public comment procedures, and informal comments. For informal comments, users get a notice that they may only get an automated reply, their comment may only be briefly reviewed by staff, and it may be consolidated with other comments for review by decision makers.

You can also track online rule usage statistics, such as how often a rule, a subheading, or documents in an online docket are accessed. This may help with resource allocation. However, careful consideration must be given to the privacy of online users.

Originally Posted: 2007.04.16
Last Modified: 2009.02.15
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