Enhancing Online Citizen Participation Through Policy

Last week, Vivek Kundra and Katie Stanton talked about the efforts underway to introduce more Web 2.0 technologies to the federal government sites and to open more back-and-forth communication between the American people and the government. Some of this naturally requires the adoption of new approaches and innovative technologies. But another big part of this is updating existing practices and how these tools can be used to break down barriers to communication and information.
We continue to ask for your feedback, but the best feedback is informed feedback. So what follows is background on current policies and some examples of what we’ve heard from you during the Brainstorming phase of our outreach.
PAPERWORK REDUCTION ACT: The Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) was written in 1980 with the aim of cutting back on administrative and paperwork burdens on the public – the classic cutting red tape idea. The PRA also is designed to ensure that the information collected from and provided to the public has the greatest possible utility. The PRA lays out broad principles for the collection, management, and dissemination of federal information. For example, the law encourages agencies that provide data in electronic format to make the raw data available to the public, much in the spirit of efforts like the recently launched Data.gov
One of the most notable parts of the PRA is that it requires agencies to make public their reasons for levying paperwork requirements on the public and to ask for public comments before actually taking that step. In the Web 2.0 environment, this requirement opens the door for a more direct back-and-forth between the agencies and the American people. This results in increased transparency and a more direct role for the public in shaping the direction of their government’s policies.
Of course, the PRA process has resource implications for agencies. As one federal employee noted in the Brainstorm, "I’m sure everyone here knows the trouble that the PRA imposes on interactive web innovations. It imposes a burden to obtain any user-generated input . . . The result is that we often don’t go to the trouble." Others have commented that the Act creates ambiguity about when its provisions apply to interactive activities like blogs and wikis.
Moving forward, we hope that the PRA can be a stronger tool to promote stronger citizen participation in the digital age. We want to hear from you on how we can make the PRA work most effectively.
FEDERAL COOKIE POLICY: This has been a challenging issue to navigate. Put in place in 2000 to protect the privacy of Americans, the federal cookie policy limited the use of persistent cookies by federal agencies. A cookie, as many readers here know, is a small piece of software that tracks or authenticates web viewing activities by the user. In the nine years since this was put in place, website cookies have become more mainstream as users want sites to recognize their preferences or keep track of the items in their online shopping carts. We’ve heard a lot of feedback on this area. One person put it all together. "Persistent cookies are very useful as an indirect feedback mechanism for measuring effectiveness of government web sites . . . Cookies allow a greater level of accuracy in measuring unique visitors . . . Being able to look at returning visitors allows us to see what content is important to our citizens. We can use that data to improve the content and navigation of our sites." 
Recognizing the fundamental change in technology in the past nine years, and the feedback that we’ve received so far, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is reexamining the cookie policy as part of this Open Government Initiative. There is a tough balance to find between citizen privacy and the benefits of persistent cookies, and we would welcome your thoughts on how best to strike it.
RECORDS MANAGEMENT: Records Management law protects transparency and accountability by ensuring that government preserves "records containing adequate and proper documentation of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, and essential transactions of the agency."  The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has developed detailed guidance to agencies on how to keep electronic records.  NARA is also working to develop guidance on managing records for new, collaborative, and social media environments and working on strategies to assist agencies on how to most effectively implement these new policies. 
As we learn, how to implement these policies for emerging media are there ways to make the law easier to follow and more effective?
FEDERAL ADVISORY COMMITTEE ACT (FACA): FACA is intended to ensure that the "numerous committees, boards, commissions, councils, and similar groups which have been established to advise officers and agencies in the executive branch of the Federal Government" do so in the open, and that the membership of these advisory groups be balanced.  Despite the fact that new tools facilitate open and transparent participation in the spirit of FACA, we’re hearing from some of you that there is a reluctance to embrace participatory innovations for fear of triggering the requirements of this law.
That leads us to some questions: Does FACA safeguard transparency while enabling civic engagement?  Is there room for any improvement in the law, policy or technology that will realize both the letter and the spirit of FACA? How can we enhance FACA through technology?
There’s a common theme on this blog: you. We want to hear from you, get your ideas, and learn from your suggestions. In some cases, laws or policies might eventually need to change or we might simply need to look at ways to apply them in the context of a changing technological environment. Let us know what you think about the policy context for Web 2.0 in the federal government.
As usual, let us know your thoughts at the OSTP blog.
Vivek Kundra is Federal CIO, Michael Fitzpatrick is Associate Administrator, OMB Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs

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