OMB Restricts Authority of Paperwork Reduction Act on Social Media but Some Controls Remain

Today, the Obama administration cleared a major hurdle for agencies seeking to solicit public input into policymaking and implementing the reforms called for in the Open Government Directive (OGD) issued on December 8, 2009.  The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a memo that exempts web-based interactive technologies from the requirements of the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA).  Now, agencies are freer than before to communicate with the public in an unstructured way but there are still some restrictions on the solicitation of structured feedback.

The memo was released pursuant to the requirements of the OGD.  Agencies are currently bogged down with excessive reporting requirements under the PRA in order to do such simple things as gather user feedback on the content of their website.  The PRA, a 1980 law, seeks to reduce the burden of paperwork in government by maximizing the utility of information collected by the government.  Thus, agencies are required to seek a control number from OMB which authorizes all forms that solicit input from the public and impose a paperwork burden.  Current policies are unclear on whether or the use of web-based tools to communicate with the public are regulated under PRA requirements.

Unfortunately, many agencies have seen the PRA as a deterrent from using such tools as Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and others.  They would rather not deal with the time and cost burden of getting such projects approved and then get that approval renewed every three years.  As a result, the government has not been using technology to its full potential to engage citizens in their democracy. 

Today, this has all changed.  The new social media policy states that “the PRA does not apply to posts that allow members of the public to provide general or unstructured feedback about a program.”  However, items like surveys, web-polls and any structured items are subject to the PRA.  Blogs, public conference calls, webinars, discussion boards, forums, message boards, chat sessions, social networks, most Wikis, and online communities are all seen as “in-person public meetings” and exempt from PRA.

Importantly, the social media policy concerns itself with agency record-keeping as well and reminds agencies that “their activities may create new federal information that will need to be managed like other information resources.  Thus, the new OMB guidance clarifies information generated by social media is governed by the same rules as government records.   A December 22, 2009 memo from the National Archives provided advice on implementing records management requirements of the OGD.

Overall, this is a positive step forward but I worry that it doesn’t really go as far as it might in establishing a truly robust dialogue with the public.  It’s important to remember that contributions to surveys and other structured questionnaires published by the government are usually voluntary.  I argue that the voluntary nature of such items means they should not be subject to the PRA since there is no public burden involved.  However, if an agency posts a survey on Facebook then it’s still subject to PRA under this policy.  I argue that if I don’t have to take that survey to communicate my ideas on that agency’s Facebook page then the agency shouldn’t be required to have that survey approved by OMB.  Such surveys are useful to get immediate structured feedback – which is more useful than unstructured feedback – on policy issues happening in real-time.  As it is, agencies will still have to wait months to get such surveys approved by OMB.


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