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Keith Nelson | In a world of online surveys, Paperwork Reduction Act is an absurdity

"Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss, or Mr. and Mrs. Daneeka: Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father, or brother was killed, wounded, or reported missing in action."

Those familiar with Joseph Heller’s classic novel "Catch-22" will recognize the line as showing how silly things can get when government adopts a one-size-fits-all approach. I was reminded of that line when Karen Evans testified in a Government 2.0 panel before a Senate committee last week. Evans, the former Office of Management and Budget administrator for e-government and information technology, pointed out that an agency looking to launch an online survey on its Web site must first comply with an absurd requirement: We must first “ask the public to comment on whether we can ask for their comments.”

Can you imagine the reaction of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs if they were bound by such a law? How do government Web managers stand a chance of creatively using modern technology tools to deliver service to their customers if they can’t solicit feedback in timely and regular intervals?

The Paperwork Reduction Act was intended to reduce the government’s burden on the public – a noble goal. Filling out personal tax returns takes time, as does businesses filling out environmental impact studies or answering questionnaires.

To reduce something requires that you first measure it, and so a system was set up in which federal agencies must calculate estimated hourly impact on the public of their information gathering – measured in what are called burden hours -- and submit it to OMB before launching any public form, survey or data request. There is no differentiation between a “have-to” form, such as a tax return, and a “want-to” form, such as a grant request. As long as the form asks specific questions and goes to more than 10 people, it must be pre-cleared.

In my experience, the result of this pre-clearance requirement has been twofold: Federal departments would haggle and barter with internal colleagues over PRA hours (“I’ll add your forms to my burden hours if you add mine to yours next time”). Second, the process to route a PRA burden request through OMB and the Federal Register, where the public could weigh in about whether the burden is reasonable or not, takes some 140 days. The bottom line for government Web sites: To avoid boosting the PRA burden hours, agency staff members are reluctant to add any nonessential forms or surveys. The result, of course, is that there have been few surveys soliciting Web site user feedback.

Katie Stanton, who holds the newly created position of director of citizen participation in the White House, must be trying to figure out how the government can hold meaningful discussions with the public without going through the PRA clearance process. The answer, in a nutshell: It can’t.

The PRA makes great sense when it measures actual burden hours. But common sense says that optional surveys are not seen as burdens by the public. If the public doesn’t want to fill out an optional form, they can simply ignore it. I am not sure if or how the solicitation of citizen suggestions has avoided the PRA (there is no OMB clearance number evident on the site), but an argument could be made that this common-sense, good-government approach is in violation of the PRA and, subsequently, any comments solicited through this vehicle must be thrown out by the government.

Would a shift away from measuring the burden of voluntary forms corrupt the numbers as they have been reported to date?

Well, I’m not sure the average American citizen would know what to do with the knowledge that recent PRA numbers stood at 9.2 billion hours, up significantly from the Reagan-era numbers of around 2 billion hours. Health care reform – or any other significant new law – would surely smash the 10 billion-hour barrier. What does this increase mean to Americans? Sometimes, nothing. Here is an actual statement from a July 2006 GAO report: “In 2006, the IRS increased its hours by 250 million because they began using a new model for estimating burden hours. According to OMB, the rise did not reflect any real change in the burden on taxpayers, just how the IRS measures it.”

Now that’s a statement worthy of "Catch-22."

About the Author

Keith Nelson is president of 2425 Group, a consulting and development firm aimed at improving government Web sites. He was formerly assistant secretary for administration at HUD and associate deputy secretary for management at the Labor Department.

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