Aneesh Chopra on White House Easing Social Media Restrictions for Government

Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra
Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra

In a conference call with reporters, federal CTO Aneesh Chopra said the White House’s new social media policy will mean that “agencies have a lot more running room to embrace these principles without having to wait sometimes months for review.”

The conference call discussed the impact of Obama’s recent memorandum, entitled “Social Media, Web-Based Interactive technologies, and the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA).”

The PRA was enacted in 1995, before the Internet gained its current level of ubiquity, and mandates that officials at federal agencies must submit an Office of Management and Budget Form 83-I whenever they gather information from the public, to justify the collection effort.  The approval process for an OMB 83-I can take months, hindering the White House’s goal of  open and collaborative governance.

The new document outlines new and emerging web-based technologies that skirt PRA rules and won’t trigger an 83-I filing.  For example:

  • Federal wiki pages can collect public input for agency officials without running afoul of the law.  (Caveat: wikis designed to collect specific data, e.g. a compliance spreadsheet, are still covered.)
  • Webinars are exempt the PRA requirements, according to the memo, along with “blogs, discussion boards, forums, message boards, chat sessions, social networks, and online communities.” But,”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 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).”

Basically, the Obama administration’s test for triggering an 83-I filing is: if you’re asking people to fill out a form (except superficial user preferences like font size and background color), you need to file an 83-I, but if you’re providing a “forum” for public engagement, you don’t.

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