Apr 7, 2010

A Few Things on the New Paperwork Reduction Act Guidance

Huge stacks of paper, ready to be reduced!Lot's of big news in "open government" today. Most federal Cabinet department and agencies published their open government plans, making good on the requirements of December's Open Government Directive

In other news, the White House Office of Management and Budget published guidance on "Social Media, Web-Based Interactive Technologies, and the Paperwork Reduction Act" (read the PDF here). There is plenty of commentary and analysis about the import of this guidance. Some think that it's more meaningful than others.

WaPost has a good overview of the memo.
The PRA, enacted in 1995, before the Internet was a staple of American life, requires officials at federal agencies to submit an Office of Management and Budget Form 83-I whenever they gather information from the public, to justify the collection effort. That process can take months.

The new document, posted on the White House Web site along with new "open government plans" from several federal agencies, acknowledges the novel ways in which information is collected via social media that should not trigger the PRA."--
Read more at Washington Post.
The ensuing discussions were not without a few bits of confusion.

  1. Some folks don't think that the memo went far enough in freeing agencies to engage directly with the public. One of the challenges, however, is that the PaperWork Reduction Act is a law, and, there is only so much space that the Executive Branch has to modify. Mods to the basic premise on web based surveys versus paper surveys tread on the Legislative branch. Some have said that this memo was as far as the White House could go and additional modifications to the PRA will take an "act of Congress." Literally. See the Constitution, especially regarding separation of powers, for more.
  2. Others think that this memo is a dud--in part--because it doesn't address issues with persistent cookies. Good news, that updated guidance is in the pipeline and should be out in a few weeks. Unknown is whether the guidance will scratch the itch. Stay tuned!
  3. There are two different PRA's in the federal government, The Paperwork Reduction Act, which this memo addresses, and the Presidential Records Act. The changes in this memo have nothing to do with Presidential records. I want to refer you to Nancy Scola's nice post on the memo--minus her reference "to obviate the need for such careful treading as the warning on the White House's official Twitter account that, "Comments & messages received through official WH pages are subject to the PRA and may be archived." Gosh, I hate government acronyms!
Don't forget to read the memo for yourself. And look for more to come!


  1. I'm going to read this in more detail; thanks for the overview. Having been in the survey business at one time I well remember the hoops (and extra costs and expensive delays) we had to go through getting public surveys approved.

    Agencies still avoid performing statistically sound surveys to measure their effectiveness in order to avoid the complications of reviews. That reduces "burden" on the public. It also leads some agencies to use less statistically sound methods to measure their effectiveness.

    Opening up more clear opportunities to use social media based metrics concerning government programs is definitely a good thing, as long as people realize that it's not easy to map data describing web-based conversations and comments to reliable population statistics.

  2. Dennis, thanks for bringing up the point about statistical validity--and the double-edged sword of surveys. The PRA guidance memo does talk about not using ratings/thumbs up/stars to make policy decisions. This is especially important given the informal nature of social media commenting. Even YouTube has changed their rating system away from 1-5 star to a simple "like" because they found the 5-star meaningless.


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