OMB social media guidance applies old law to new technologies

Agencies now have guidance on how the Paperwork Reduction Act applies to social media

The Office of Management and Budget today clarified that agencies don’t need to seek its approval before using social media and Web-based interactive technologies to interact with the public in some situations.

OMB released a memo to distinguish how the requirements of the Paperwork Reduction Act  apply to agencies’ use of Web-based technologies such as blogs, wikis, and social networks. That law requires federal agencies to get approval from OMB before collecting information from the public.

Agencies and members of the public have asked how the Act's requirements apply to social media and Web-based technologies, OMB said.

OMB regulations regarding the Act exclude facts or opinions provided in response to general solicitations published in places such as the Federal Register. Today’s guidance from OMB said that Web-based technologies used to publish such solicitations should also be excluded from the requirements.

Federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra said the guidance is designed to simplify and clarify when agencies' actions require PRA oversight. He said the new guidance allows agencies to more easily crowdsource ideas.

“Agencies now have a lot more running room to embrace these principles in their activities without having to wait in some cases months for final review,” Chopra said, adding that the administration remains committed to the PRA.

Cass Sunstein, administrator for OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, wrote in the memo, “Agencies and members of the public have asked whether uses of social media and web-based interactive technologies are information collections subject to the PRA. Although certain uses of such media and technologies unquestionably count as information collections, many do not.”

OMB said the PRA requirements wouldn’t apply to “unstructured solicitations” such as those published in the Federal Register or through social media Web sites, blogs, media sharing sites, or online message boards that are hosted on a .gov domain or by a third party. However, if an agency posts the same questions in a survey, such as a Web poll, the PRA requirements would apply.

OMB made a similar distinction between suggestion boxes put up by agencies and requests for information from agencies that ask for more than basic identifying information from respondents. OMB also made distinctions for when electronic subscriptions to agency publications or online meetings would be subject to the requirements of the PRA.

Meanwhile, OMB said wikis don’t automatically trigger the requirements of the PRA. In addition, some uses of social media may present novel records management issues, Sunstein wrote.

Heather West, a policy analyst with the Center for Democracy and Technology, said she’ll thinks the guidance will help agencies use the tools to create more of a conversation with the public.

“I think the practical effect is that agencies who want to use social media to engage [people] now have the clear indication that PRA doesn’t block that,” she said.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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