Government Social Media Restrictions Eased

The guidance makes it easier for agencies to use social media and requires steps to ensure better rule-making and spending transparency.
Even as federal agencies release their plans for complying with the Obama administration's open government requirements, the administration announced additional open government guidance Wednesday.

In a series of memos, the White House provided agencies with new rules and guidance on social media, regulatory information, spending data, and compliance with the Paperwork Reduction Act, a regulation observers had seen as holding back government transparency.

The Paperwork Reduction Act requires agencies to seek public comment and request clearance from the Office of Management and Budget before requesting most types of information from the public -- a process that many agencies and observers find burdensome in the era of instant feedback via social media.

In order to free agencies from these procedures, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs issued a memo from OIRA administrator Cass Sunstein that clarifies that the PRA does not apply to many uses of social media.

For example, OIRA notes that the PRA doesn't apply to online suggestion boxes and some types of other generally non-specific feedback requests, crowdsourcing applications, e-mail lists, and RSS feeds; online ratings and rankings; and Web site elements that enable users to share content. It also doesn't cover anything that could be considered an "interactive meeting tool," including Webinars, blogs, discussion boards, chat sessions, social networks, and most uses of wikis.

Agencies are also free to create user profiles, so long as they only request an e-mail address, username, password, and/or a general location when having the user sign up.

Still, the PRA processes will continue to cover a number of online activities, such as Web polls and satisfaction surveys, contests requiring structured responses, and Web sites collecting demographic information about their visitors.

In another memo, OIRA urges agencies to increase the transparency of the federal rulemaking policy, an area of government activity which Sunstein calls "difficult to navigate."

The guidance says agencies should make it easier for the public to find regulatory information online. The memo reiterates, for example, that all agencies are required by executive order to use a standard identifier for each regulatory rule throughout the rule-making process. A final document, to be issued later Wednesday, will provide agencies with guidance on how to track and submit subcontractor spending data to OMB.

One item missing from the administration's guidance today was an overhaul of policy restricting the use of browser cookies on federal Web sites, which would make it easier for agencies to personalize their sites and perform deeper analytics on Web traffic. Though it won't be released today, new guidance is forthcoming, according to an OMB spokesman.

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