My recent ACUS report presents three conclusions to frame proposed improvements.
The Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) was passed in 1980 and reauthorized in 1986 and 1995. Its history has been inextricably linked with the history of regulatory review and presidential oversight of agency decisions. However, the intent of those who passed it was for it to be even broader: to bring rationality to the management of information within the executive branch. In the years since its passage, it has been a statute that is often forgotten and frequently mocked as ineffective or even counterproductive, most directly because, by any measure, information collection by the federal government has skyrocketed since enactment of the PRA.
Last September, I was selected as a consultant for the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS) to work on an assessment of the PRA. I came to the project after extensive work with the PRA as a desk officer at the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) prior to becoming a professor at Rutgers University in 2003. OIRA reviews over 4000 proposed collections of information annually and the Office’s approval is necessary before other federal agencies can collect data from ten or more individuals.
My research for ACUS consisted of examining data on agency collections, comments on the collections, and OIRA reviews, all of which are freely available on Reginfo.gov. I also researched the many suggestions for reforms of the PRA and interviewed past and present officials from OIRA, other agencies, and interest group representatives . My research generated three important conclusions:
- Mandatory OIRA review and the notice and comment requirement of the information collection approval process clearly adds value to certain information collections. These collections fall into several easy-to-distinguish categories. Collections that are new, collections with statistical issues, and collections with significant policy implications receive a great deal of attention from OIRA, and many benefit greatly as a result.
- On the other hand, by far most agency information collections receive no comments and are approved by OIRA through only a cursory review without any modifications. In particular, extensions of previously approved collections—which make up nearly two-thirds of all information collection requests by agencies—are approved without change by OIRA 92% of the time.
- Even though the authors of the PRA contemplated Information Resource Management (IRM), which involves a “life-cycle” approach to information use, dissemination, storage, and disposal, current regulators have largely forgotten this policy as a part of the information collection review process.
My recommendations to ACUS largely consisted of scaling back the review process for extending previously approved information collections. This reduction could include decreasing the notice and comment requirements (currently two comment periods are required), delegating current OMB review to agencies for these collections, and extending the amount of time for which OMB can approve collections. Adopting these recommendations would allow both OIRA and agencies to focus more on the information collections that most heavily burden the American public most and that have the greatest policy significance.
The ACUS committee process modified my recommendations to include additional suggestions to agencies about how they could improve the solicitation of public input on their more significant information collections. The ACUS membership approved the committee recommendations with some minor amendments by a voice vote on June 15, 2012. Hopefully the ACUS recommendations can jumpstart an improvement in the way our federal government collects and uses information from the public—and better fulfill the original goals of the Paperwork Reduction Act.