By Michael D. Shear
Thursday, April 8, 2010; A19
Soon it will be much easier to interact with government through tweets, blogs and wikis without forcing federal agencies to jump through the procedural hoops set up by the Paperwork Reduction Act.
As part of the Obama administration's effort to bring a new level of openness to federal agencies, government lawyers have clarified -- sort of -- how the PRA will treat the new forms of online interactions between federal agencies and the public.
Sort of, because, as in many government documents, there's no simple yes or no answer in the memorandum titled "Social Media, Web-Based Interactive technologies, and the Paperwork Reduction Act."
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.
-- Federal wiki pages can encourage interactions between the public and officials at federal agencies without running afoul of the law. (But wikis that are used to gather specific data -- like a compliance spreadsheet -- are still covered.)
-- Webinars (considered online public meetings) can happen without triggering the PRA requirements, the document says, along with "blogs, discussion boards, forums, message boards, chat sessions, social networks, and online communities."
The document warns, however: "If an agency takes the opportunity of a public meeting to distribute a survey, or to ask identical questions of 10 or more attendees, the questions count as an information collection."
"Government websites that host social media interaction can ask visitors to set customized preferences for layout, color scheme, subject areas and topics without requiring a Form 83-I. The government can seek general commentary from the public without having to justify the effort, according to the document.
"Agencies may offer the public opportunities to provide general comments on discussion topics through other means, including but not limited to social media websites; blogs; microblogs; audio, photo, or video sharing websites; or online message boards (whether hosted on a .gov domain or by a third-party provider)."
But it warns that the PRA applies to agencies that "post surveys of any kind, including web polls and satisfaction surveys that pose identical, specific questions (including through pop-up windows)."
Those surveys "are subject to the public notice and comment requirements of the PRA and must have OMB approval before use."
In a conference call with reporters, the government's chief technology officer, Aneesh Chopra, said the new policy will mean that "agencies have a lot more running room to embrace these principles without having to wait sometimes months for review."
In addition to the memo, several federal agencies on Wednesday released open government plans that aim to provide more data and other federal information to the public.
Among them, the Department of Housing and Urban Development said it will post vast amounts of information about homelessness, aiming to help advocates confront the issue. The Energy Department has created a wiki to help share information about clean energy technologies, such as solar and wind data. The Department of Health and Human Services will post data about community health services.
The plans are at http://www.whitehouse.gov/open.