Making the Power of the Internet Work for the Government

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Earlier this year, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget requested comments on improving the Paperwork Reduction Act. The law requires agencies that wish to gather information from the public to first run their plans by OMB. In revisiting the law and its implementing regulations, OMB is focused on:

  • Reducing current paperwork burdens, especially on small entities;
  • Increasing the practical utility of information collected by the Federal Government;
  • Ensuring accurate burden estimates; and
  • Preventing unintended adverse consequences.

One of the unintended adverse consequences of the PRA arises in the Internet context, with what the government deems “surveys.” Government websites may not use surveys, even when compliance is strictly voluntary, without first receiving approval from OMB in a process that is lengthy and laborious.

Agencies interpret the term “survey” broadly, banning or restricting tools that would allow users to publicly rank or assess the usefulness of information. This restricts online rating systems like those commonly used by blogs, retailers, and so on. For example, imagine YouTube without its five-star rating system, or Slashdot without the ability to vote for stories.

We address the survey issue in a comment we submitted to OMB late last year.

The approval process for a survey can take half a year or more and requires multiple periods for public comment. The law intentionally creates disincentives for surveying the public.

The authors of the Paperwork Reduction Act never considered the ways that the Internet would allow citizens to directly communicate with one another on government websites through the use of voluntary surveys. Nor did they imagine that surveys could be as quick and easy as clicking yes or no. The law was intended to make the government more efficient and reduce the burden on citizens. 15 years into the Internet age, it’s time to take another look.

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