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Stimulus watchdog site exempted from paperwork rules

The government has waived certain rules in the 1995 Paperwork Reduction Act for the board overseeing economic stimulus spending, allowing it to collect recipient information online without giving the public notice or waiting six months to obtain the required federal approvals for online forms.

"We've got two federal laws in conflict here," said Earl Devaney, chairman of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, during a Tuesday interview with Nextgov. He was referring to the Recovery Act's call for swift action to jump-start the economy, and the pre-Internet law's requirement that the public and the Office of Management and Budget review and approve information collection activities.

Regulations surrounding the 1995 act are drawing the scorn of more federal Web managers, who say they stymie interactive public outreach. In response, OMB officials this summer asked employees and citizens to comment on a blog on how the government can enhance citizen participation through better policies. But for now most agencies must publish advance notices about information they intend to collect and complete a lengthy review process to secure permission from OMB.

Devaney said the board needed special clearance from OMB to expedite the process of collecting spending information from recipients of Recovery Act funds, through the password-protected site FederalReporting.gov. In October, the site will start feeding the data, including the amount of money recipients received and spent and the number of jobs created, into the public Recovery.gov stimulus-tracking site.

The board posted a notice in the Federal Register on Aug. 31 seeking public comment on the collection of personal information from registrants to verify their identities on FederalReporting.gov. The site requires recipients to enter their names, e-mail addresses, telephone numbers and extensions, three security questions and answers, and information about their organization.

"The FederalReporting.gov recipient registration system (FRRS) was developed to protect the board and FederalReporting.gov users from individuals seeking to gain unauthorized access to user accounts on FederalReporting.gov," the notice stated.

The announcement added that paperwork act regulations "require federal agencies to provide 60 days' notice to the public for comment . . . before seeking approval" from OMB. But recipients began enrolling in August, before the Federal Register notice was posted, and must finish doing so in time to submit their spending reports, which are due Oct. 10. Registration will be finished before the public has time to comment and OMB has time to approve the online form.

OMB officials on Wednesday said that, due to the quick time frame, the board obtained an emergency clearance to collect information for the next six months. After that period, the board must follow up with a formal request for approval to collect information, which includes a 60-day public comment period.

Officials added that stimulus rules issued in February allowed agencies to request such emergency processing to comply with Recovery Act disclosure and transparency provisions.

On June 16, OMB officials blogged that they want feedback from citizens on how the agency can make the paperwork act work more effectively in the digital age.

"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," wrote Vivek Kundra, federal chief information officer, and Michael Fitzpatrick, associate administrator of OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. "This requirement opens the door for a more direct back and forth between the agencies and the American people."

They then added, "Of course, the PRA process has resource implications for agencies. As one federal employee noted . . . '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."

Noel Dickover, a federal social media consultant and critic of the paperwork rules, joined the online conversation to argue that the regulations no longer are valid. Their goal was to ensure the government only requests minimal information from the public and any other input from citizens is considered a burden, he wrote on June 17.

"OMB probably only has a fraction of the capability today needed to do . . . the thorough job prescribed in statute -- they certainly won't have the situational awareness or requisite variety to do this in an open government model," he wrote.

During an interview on Tuesday, Dickover added, "Wouldn't it be nice if they gave everyone else a waiver?"

Some civil liberties groups said they had no concerns about the government accelerating the accumulation of stimulus reports with an online depot, but officials should still inform the public that this is happening.

"I think it's appropriate for the government to explore the use of new technologies to facilitate data collection," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "At the same time, the transparency and public notice requirements of federal law need to be respected."

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