OMB OKs Government Use of Facebook, Twitter to Friend Public

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-04-08

Social media use by the government got a boost April 7 as the Office of Management and Budget said agencies don't need its approval before using technologies such as Facebook and Twitter to communicate with the public.

The OMB in a memo described how the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA), which requires federal agencies to get approval from the OMB before collecting information from the public, does not in most cases apply to agencies' use of social networks, wikis and blogs.

Federal agencies, the OMB recognized, are increasingly using such applications to solicit public comment and to hold virtual public meetings.

PRA requirements won't apply to unstructured solicitations published in social media Web sites such as Facebook, microblogs such as Twitter, blogs, media-sharing sites such as YouTube, or online message boards that are hosted on a .gov domain or by a third party.

"If, however, agencies post surveys of any kind, including Web polls and satisfaction surveys that pose identical, specific questions (including through pop-up windows), the PRA does apply," wrote Cass Sunstein, administrator for the OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

"These surveys, like in-person, mail, or telephone surveys, are subject to the public notice and comment requirements of the PRA and must have OMB approval before use."

Wikis, the OMB said, are an example of a Web collaboration tool that does not trigger the PRA because they enable communications between the agencies and the public.

However, using a wiki to collect information that an agency would otherwise gather by asking for responses to identical questions, such as posting a spreadsheet into which respondents are directed to enter compliance data), would be covered under the PRA, Sunstein wrote.

Social media tools on agency Websites that let the public rate comments through a thumbs-up/thumbs-down voting mechanism or through numerical ratings and tag clouds are not subject to the PRA. OMB recommends agencies limit use of the information generated by these tools to organizing, ranking, and sorting comments.

Government agencies may employ on their Websites general "suggestion boxes" or applications for brainstorming to enable the public to submit feedback.

However, in the case where an agency requests information from respondents beyond name and e-mail or mailing address this request is covered by the PRA because it seeks information beyond what is "necessary" for self-identification.

There are several other points to the OMB's memo, which readers may view here.

The impetus for the OMB's memo was President Barack Obama's Jan. 21 memo ordering the OMB to create an Open Government Directive to foster "a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration."

With its memo, the OMB has proven that social media and Web 2.0 tools clearly factor into this plan.

OMB is hardly the first segment of the government to loosen the reins on social media and Web application use.

The Department of Defense in February said the entire non-classified network may provide access to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other user-generated content and Web 2.0 applications, such as Google Apps, wikis and blogs.

Rocket Fuel