Next time you hear about your city council looking to pass a law, make sure to check out their blog, Twitter and Facebook accounts. The Office of Management and Budget issued a memorandum yesterday that should make it easier for government agencies to both communicate with citizens and receive feedback by way of the Internet and social media.

Update: As several readers have pointed out, this memo applies, as well as the law it addresses, applies only to Federal government activities and not those of local governments, such as the city council actions identified above.

The memo, entitled “Social Media, Web-Based Interactive Technologies, and the Paperwork Reduction Act” addresses the bounds of the Paperwork Reduction Act, a law first passed in 1980, and again in 1995, that regulates the ways in which government agencies can collect information. Yesterday’s memo identifies a number of online activities, according to some rather specific criteria, that can now be considered outside the realm of the PRA – and therefore allowable without prior authorization by the OMB, something that could take several months.

This Memorandum identifies a series of other activities that, consistent with the text and purposes of the PRA, OMB has determined may be excluded from its purview. Such activities include many uses of wikis, the posting of comments, the conduct of certain contests, and the rating and ranking of posts or comments by website users.
This Memorandum applies whether agency interactions are occurring on a .gov website or on a third-party platform.

The memo is in response to a January 21, 2009 memorandum by President Obama, which called for the establishment of “a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration.”

The memo notes that government “agencies are increasingly using web-based technologies, such as blogs, wikis, and social networks, as a means of ‘publishing’ solicitations for public comment and for conducting virtual public meetings” and that “certain uses of social media and web-based interactive technologies will be treated as equivalent to activities that are currently excluded from the PRA”.

Online media that simply “facilitate interaction”, such as wikis and simple communication via social media, are likely to be excluded from PRA regulations, which requires government agencies to submit authorization requests to the OMB. The memo also states, however, that “if an agency takes the opportunity of a public meeting to distribute a survey, or to ask identical questions of 10 or more attendees, the questions count as an information collection” and will be held to PRA requirements. The memo goes on to list several distinctions between simple interaction and information collection and more structured information collection, the latter of which falls under PRA jurisdiction.

So, if you find that you can’t ever make it down to the City Hall for those public hearings, we’d advise getting on Facebook, Twitter and whatever else you can and find your local government on there. It’s likely they will begin soliciting public input in a more informal manner on these sites in the near future.