September 24, 2015

OIRA Issues Science-Based Communications Quality Instructions for Information Collections

OIRA invoked its authority under the Paperwork Reduction Act in its joint Memorandum with OSTP to the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies, and of the Independent Regulatory Agencies implementing key sections of President Obama’s Executive Order Using Behavioral Science Insights to Better Serve the American People. The “Memorandum advises agencies on how to use behavioral science insights to improve Federal forms and informs them of resources and administrative flexibilities to assist with implementation of the Executive Order.”

The Memorandum explains to all agencies that most “if not all, Federal forms would likely benefit from the application of behavioral science insights; for the sake of efficiency, this Memorandum encourages Federal agencies to prioritize their review of existing forms consistent with their impact on the public and the agency.” Moreover, agencies are “encouraged” to use the PRA’s public comment periods to obtain information about “the forms’ functionality and usage.”

The Memorandum emphasizes to agencies that additional instructions on incorporating the cognitive and behavioral sciences in information collections is forthcoming,

OIRA intends to issue guidance on topics related to the use of cognitive and behavioral science methods for improving the quality of Federal information collections, working in collaboration with [Social and Behavioral Sciences Team] SBST and others who work on related issues, such as the Federal Committee on Statistical Methodology (FCSM).

The Memorandum states that implementing the behavioral sciences executive order “in concert with the Paperwork Reduction Act. . .presents a promising opportunity to improve Federal forms using insights from decades of research in the social and behavioral sciences.”

Federally-sponsored research into improving federal forms was initiated through the “plain English” provisions of President Carter’s Executive Order 12044Improving Government Regulations which required that regulations be “written in plain English and. . .understandable to those who must comply with it.” One of the responses to EO 12044 was the Department of Education’s funding of the Document Design Project. For a case study of how President Carter’s plain English directive improved ED’s FISAP financial assistance form, see here. The Carter Administration further advanced its plain English requirement in Executive Order 12174 Federal Paperwork Reduction directing that when “forms must be used, they should be as short as possible and should elicit information in a simple, straightforward fashion.”  

The Carter Administration’s plain English requirement had it’s origins in the Nixon Administration’s directive that Federal Register notices be written in “layman’s terms.”

OIRA is to be applauded for putting new teeth in OMB’s longstanding work to implement science-based federal communications quality standards through the regulatory review process.

Read the OIRA and OSTP September 15, 2015 Memorandum here.





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