White House Seeking Comment on Information Policy 

The White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs is asking the public for ideas on ways to improve the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) – the 29-year-old law that governs federal information collection, dissemination, and management. In a notice in today’s Federal Register, the White House announces the opening of a 60 day public comment period.

 The PRA could use a good overhaul. It was designed in an era before the proliferation of popular computer technologies and the Internet, and it needs to be brought into a paperless world (a name change wouldn’t hurt).

Unfortunately, I think OIRA is too narrowly focused at this point. OIRA’s notice focuses too much on the most well-covered part of the PRA: information collection. Under the PRA, OIRA (an arm of the Office of Management and Budget) must grant approval any time a federal agency wishes to collect information from the public. As a result of that process, government forms usually bear an OMB control number. You can find these numbers on everything from tax returns to customs declarations.

But the PRA goes beyond the OIRA approval process. The PRA has never been solely about reducing paperwork. It directs the federal government to employ good practices for information management and dissemination, information technology, and use of statistics. The PRA calls for the electronic archiving of government information and requires agencies to “ensure that the public has timely and equitable access to the agency’s public information.” Under the auspices of the PRA, the government could enact broader transparency or information technology reforms.

Some of those reforms may only come about through changes to the PRA itself. The PRA technically expired in 2001 and needs to be reauthorized by Congress. Any changes to the PRA – whether dictated by OIRA, taken on elsewhere in the administration, or crafted by Congress – need to reflect technological advances and tackle the broader challenge of improving information management.

In that regard, today’s OIRA notice misses the mark; it could have been a first step in developing a broad framework for reform. (Of course, there is nothing stopping commenters from addressing larger issues.)

On a positive note, the OIRA notice does address the issue of interactive technology tools as a means to collect information. Blogs, wikis, and other technologies where the public voluntarily participates in government decisionmaking (e.g. the White House Open Government Dialogue) should not be considered formal information collections, and OIRA should instruct agencies that they need not seek approval before engaging citizens using these technologies.