November 10, 2019

How Government Agencies Can Poll Audiences on Social Media Without Breaking the Rules

When it comes to adopting new technology, the government is often light years behind the private sector. One of the areas where this is most true today is social media. Because the private sector has a profit motive, businesses tend to view social media as not just a place to find new customers, but also as an instrument to gauge public opinion about their brand. This is done through polls, surveys, questionnaires and other techniques.  

Government has been slow to adopt public polling for two reasons:

  • There's no pressure to make money like in the private sector
  • Arcane rules and laws against data collection

The Paperwork Reduction Act

If you’ve ever worked on a communications or outreach team within a government agency, you’re probably familiar with the Paperwork Reduction Act. It’s an old law from the 1980s that prohibits government agencies from imposing information collection burdens on the public. It made sense back then when the world ran on paper, but in today’s world of bits and speed, it doesn’t make as much sense.  

Now, before we talk about ways around this regulation on digital media, let’s ask why a government agency would want to gather information from the public on social media in the first place. It’s really quite simple. People pay taxes and in return they expect the government to offer them value. And they expect it to be done well and transparently. Furthermore, because people are forking over their hard-earned money to the government, they expect the government to listen to them and at least pretend it cares.  

Social media is beautifully designed for two-way government to citizen communication on a massive scale. And a lot of this communication should involve the government directly asking the citizens how best it can help them. Unfortunately, because of the Paperwork Reduction Act, many government agencies believe that they aren’t allowed to get feedback from the public without breaking rules. While there are restrictions on how information can be collected, there are simple ways around them.

How to Get Around Social Media Polling Restrictions

The Office of Management and Budget(OMB) issued a memo  in 2010 that exempts digital platforms from the requirements of the Paperwork Reduction Act. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of confusion about what kind of digital information collection is allowed and many communication/outreach departments would rather not deal with the time and cost burden of getting requests approved, so they don’t bother.  

However, something to keep in mind is that the OMB’s new social media policy states that “the Paperwork Reduction Act does not apply to posts that allow members of the public to provide general or unstructured feedback about a program.” The key term there is “unstructured feedback.” This means that you don’t have to go through legal to get your poll questions approved if instead you structure your “surveys” in the form of simple generic statements that invite people to share their ideas. There are numerous ways to do this.  

For example, let’s say that Veterans Affairs would like to get people’s opinion on what kinds of topics veterans would like to read more about on the agency’s blog. Rather than structuring that in the form of a questionnaire, it could just be as simple as a post on Facebook that says “Please share your thoughts and opinions on what you’d like to see more of in our blog. Whether it’s benefits, wait times, homelessness or something else, we’d love to hear from you.”  

When it comes to getting feedback, let your creativity run wild and keep it generic.

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