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Use Social Media Freely, White House Tells Agencies (Updated)

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, April 7 2010

Credit: luxomedia

Generally speaking, social media falls outside the constraints of the 1980 Paperwork Reduction Act that was aimed at easing the paperwork burden for both citizens and government while making sure that the information that should be retained by government is. (See update down below.) That's the conclusion, more or less, of a pretty significant memo on the use of social media in government (pdf) released this morning by White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs administrator Cass Sunstein, on the same day that federal agenices are required to release their plans on how they intend to make their operations more transparent and participatory.

The memo, Sunstein writes, is "animated by the goal of promoting flexible and open interactions between Federal agencies and the public." OIRA is part of the Office of Management and Budget, which was tasked by President Obama's Open Government Directive with providing some clarity on how existing laws apply to the government use of social media that the White House has called for federal agencies to engage in. Sunstein told agencies that everything from blogs to social networks are analogous to the "public meetings" that the PRA doesn't cover.

Boiled down, the result of the Sunstein memo is that federal agencies under the Obama administration have been handed freedom to engage online without having to worry quite so much about collecting and archiving every blog comment, retweet, or Facebook wall post. The memo from the Obama White House knocks away one obstacle for agencies considering engaging the public through social media. It would seem, at first read, 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." The memo:

Under current OMB policy, agencies do not trigger the PRA’s requirements by hosting a public meeting. For purposes of the PRA, OMB considers interactive meeting tools—including but not limited to public conference calls, webinars, blogs, discussion boards, forums, message boards, chat sessions, social networks, and online communities—to be equivalent to in-person public meetings.

That said, Sunstein advised that there are cases where PRA is called into action, particularly when the agencies are using tools to complete actions that, if they were to be completed through other means, would be covered by information-saving laws:

Wikis are an example of a web-based collaboration tool that generally does not trigger the PRA because they merely facilitate interactions between the agencies and the public. However, some uses of wiki technologies are covered by the PRA, such as using a wiki to collect information that an agency would otherwise gather by asking for responses to identical questions (e.g., posting a spreadsheet into which respondents are directed to enter compliance data).

And the Hill's Tony Romm points out that agencies aren't being freed to let social media write public policy:

OMB recommends, however, that agencies exercise good judgment and caution when using rankings, ratings, or tagging. Specifically, agency use of the information generated by these tools should be limited to organizing, ranking, and sorting comments. Because, in general, the results of online rankings, ratings, and tagging (e.g., number of votes or top rank) are not statistically generalizable, they should not be used as the basis for policy or planning.

Here, again, is the memo: "Social Media, Web-Based Interactive Technologies, and the Paperwork Reduction Act."

Update: Some necessary clarification on this posts -- So, the guidance in the Sunstein memo on how agencies should think about the application of the Paperwork Reduction Act has to do in particular with agencies having to get pre-approval from OIRA whenever they plan to engage in information collection from the public. As the Congressional Research Service puts it in their report on PRA, "Agencies must receive OIRA approval (signified by an OMB control number displayed on the information collection) for each information collection request before it is implemented, and those approvals must be renewed at least every three years. As discussed in more detail later in this report, failure to obtain OIRA approval for an active collection, or the lapse of that approval, represents a violation of the act, and triggers the PRA’s public protection provision." The focus is on information gathering, not archiving.

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