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It’s official: Twitter isn’t Government Paperwork

As part of the 120 day deadlines in the Open Government Directive, OMB just released several sets of guidance for agencies in how they use new tools like social media or wikis. Currently, there's a burdensome process for agencies who want to do something as simple as ask the users of their website whether they are pleased with their experience – and there has been widespread confusion about whether asking users on Twitter or other social networks amounted to the same thing. Luckily for those in agencies that want to use social media or blogs to engage the public, today's guidance makes it that much easier to do, clearly stating that most uses of interactive web tools are not, in fact, paperwork.

This guidance tells agencies how to implement the Paperwork Reduction Act, a law from 1980 that regulates how agencies can solicit and collect information from citizens, with the goal of reducing the burden of government paperwork for the public. Clearly, this is a laudable goal and one worth pursuing. However, as written, existing guidance on how agencies could ask the public for information severely limited the ways they could use web tools. This memo clarifies the policies from five years ago to more closely align itself with the spirit of the law – not requiring citizens to complete unnecessary paperwork. However, the PRA was never intended to be a bar to bidirectional communication with the public – asking questions, soliciting suggestions, or updating citizens on the work of an agency is not "paperwork".

While some agencies forged ahead, using their social feeds (NASA's @marsphoenix is a personal favorite of mine), many agencies have been hesitant to use these tools to do more than send out press releases. Using these tools in "social" and collaborative ways is an important aspect to allowing agencies to include citizens in their work, and to opening the work of government to the public. This policy was a barrier to that engagement. It's great to see that these memos characterize agency communications based on their intent and content rather than the method used to send the information (or ask questions) to the public with a clear go-ahead to agencies that want to engage citizens in discussions about their work.

Later today, many agencies are expected to release their open government plans, and OMB should also be releasing other guidance on privacy regulations and federal funding transparency. I look forward to seeing them – and, if you're interested, the department of Health and Human Services will be live streaming their release, and the EPA has also released their plan. It's an exciting day for open government – here's hoping that 120 days out from the Open Government Directive is enough for substantial changes in the way government does it's business.