Urban Myths and the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA)

I often get calls or emails about policies or laws relevant to collaboration, public engagement, or partnerships. Questions about the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) are some of the more common ones because, honestly, there are a whole bunch of urban myths around it and it covers so much.

If you haven’t run into it yet, you should know that the PRA applies to any “systematic collection of information from the public.” That is a huge piece of ground, from surveys to forms to written reports an agency might require, from voluntary collections to required ones, from focus groups to websites, depending upon how those are used. But, you also should know there are exemptions for certain activities, like for public hearings or meetings or what is called “general solicitations of information” through the Federal Register or other publications.

Mostly, when someone calls me about the PRA, they want to find out whether what they are planning to do will trigger PRA and, if so, whether they can adjust their plans so they don’t trigger it. While some are asking about steps they need to take to comply with the PRA, most are hoping to avoid triggering it because compliance can take many months, if not longer, to complete.

This is a brief, plain language explanation of the PRA. It mentions a few of the urban myths that keep coming up and gives you a few references to resources you might find helpful. If you want to know more, I’ve also put together a more detailed set of answers to common questions, which is where most of the detailed policy references are found [PRA FAQ].

Before I get into policy, I want to underscore is this: having a non-federal person collect information under a federal contract still triggers the PRA. It is an urban myth to think that hiring a contractor to collect information from the public somehow allows you to avoid complying with the PRA. I want to knock this down for you because you and your agency can get into trouble here.

For the purposes of public engagement and public participation, partnerships, and collaboration, my sense is that there are three truly important policy points to know about PRA.

The first is that the PRA is there to keep you out of trouble. As background, the PRA is a federal U.S. law passed by Congress in 1995—over 20 years ago—and implemented by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which is part of the Executive Office of the President (EOP). OMB-OIRA’s PRA regulations are found HERE.

The reason for the law and for placing responsibility for its implementation with OMB-OIRA is that gathering information from the public can have policy, legal, or political implications. That’s why all this is so important. The last thing you want is to provoke a whole bunch of unwanted attention or have some of your work taken out of context.

The second most important thing to know is the scope of PRA: it applies to any collection of identical information from ten (10) or more people, which includes organizations, local governments, Tribes, and other groups of people. One of the urban myths about this is that there is some minimum number of questions, like 9 or fewer, you can ask without triggering PRA. That is wrong: PRA applies regardless of the number of questions. There are exemptions that could apply, but the number of questions isn’t one of those.

The third most important thing to know for our purposes here is the PRA doesn’t apply to public meetings or hearings, including activities like breakout sessions, working groups, or similar public engagement activities unless, of course, you conduct a survey as part of those activities. This exemption also extends to similar, functionally equivalent activities online, like chat rooms, blogs, wikis, and social networks, even the ranking or rating of posts and comments. OMB-OIRA considers those activities as similar enough to what they call “general solicitations of information” to be exempt from PRA. You can read the specific policy HERE. I often hear misunderstandings about this topic, so I really want to encourage you to read the policy if you have questions.

One last thing: if you have specific PRA questions, each agency or Department has an office or person dedicated to helping navigate the PRA and similar laws. Sometimes the position is called an Information Collection Office or Officer (ICO). I encourage you to find out where to go given the work you do and the issues that come across your desk. Not every agency or Department interprets the PRA the same way. You may have different degrees of latitude or discretion depending upon where you work, so check with the experts in your office. Remember, they are there to help you follow the law and stay out of trouble.

February 6, 2018

Peter Williams, PhD

PBW Consulting

Paperwork Reduction Act FAQ


Learn More:

Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995, a 3 part video series with Wolf Cota, USFS, 37 minutes 

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