Paperwork Reduction Act:

New Approach May Be Needed to Reduce Government Burden on Public

GAO-05-424: Published: May 20, 2005. Publicly Released: Jun 14, 2005.

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Americans spend billions of hours each year providing information to federal agencies by filling out information collections (forms, surveys, or questionnaires). A major aim of the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) is to balance the burden of these collections with their public benefit. Under the act, agencies' Chief Information Officers (CIO) are responsible for reviewing information collections before they are submitted to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for approval. As part of this review, CIOs must certify that the collections meet 10 standards set forth in the act. GAO was asked to assess, among other things, this review and certification process, including agencies' efforts to consult with the public. To do this, GAO reviewed a governmentwide sample of collections, reviewed processes and collections at four agencies that account for a large proportion of burden, and performed case studies of 12 approved collections.

Governmentwide, agency CIOs generally reviewed information collections and certified that they met the standards in the act. However, GAO's analysis of 12 case studies at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development, and Labor showed that CIOs certified collections even though support was often missing or partial. For example, in nine of the case studies, agencies did not provide support, as the law requires, for the standard that the collection was developed by an office with a plan and resources to use the information effectively. Because OMB instructions do not ask explicitly for this support, agencies generally did not address it. Further, although the law requires agencies both to publish notices in the Federal Register and to otherwise consult with the public, agencies governmentwide generally limited consultation to the publication of notices, which generated little public comment. Without appropriate support and public consultation, agencies have reduced assurance that collections satisfy the standards in the act. Processes outside the PRA review process, which are more rigorous and involve greater public outreach, have been set up by IRS and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), whose missions involve numerous information collections and whose management is focused on minimizing burden. For example, each year, IRS subjects a few forms to highly detailed, in-depth analyses, including extensive outreach to the public affected and the information users. IRS reports that this process--performed on forms that have undergone CIO review and received OMB approval--has reduced burden by over 200 million hours since 2002. In contrast, for the 12 case studies, the CIO review process did not reduce burden. Without rigorous evaluative processes, agencies are unlikely to achieve the PRA goal of minimizing burden while maximizing utility.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress has continued to show interest in new approaches to streamlining and burden reduction by asking for GAO testimony and information on the subject. However, no legislative action has been taken.

    Matter: In addition, in view of the few comments these notices elicit, the Congress may wish to consider eliminating the requirement to publish the initial 60-day notice in the Federal Register requesting public comments on proposed collections.

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress has continued to show interest in new approaches to burden reduction by asking for GAO testimony and information on the subject. However, no legislative action has been taken.

    Matter: Given the identified weaknesses in current processes and the possibility of achieving significant paperwork reduction through other initiatives, the Congress may wish to consider mandating the development of pilot projects to test and review the value of approaches such as those used by IRS and EPA. In structuring these pilots, the Congress may wish to consider requiring agencies participating in pilots to submit to OMB and publish on their Web sites (or through other means) an annual plan on the collections targeted for review, specific burden reduction goals for those collections, and a report on reductions achieved to date.

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress has continued to show interest in new approaches to burden reduction by asking for GAO testimony and information on the subject. However, no legislative action has been taken.

    Matter: Given the identified weaknesses in current processes and the possibility of achieving significant paperwork reduction through other initiatives, the Congress may wish to consider mandating the development of pilot projects to test and review the value of approaches such as those used by IRS and EPA. In structuring these pilots, the Congress may wish to consider requiring the Director, OMB, to issue guidance to agencies on implementing this approach, including criteria for assessing collections along the lines of the process currently employed by IRS.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of the Treasury took steps to ensure that Web sites are reviewed for information collections that are unapproved or whose approval is expiring. The department developed a monthly information collection report that is forwarded to bureaus and offices notifying them to begin the renewal process to avoid letting approvals expire; for example, a February 2009 report covered collections expiring from March 2009 to August 2009. According to the department, it has also included review activity for bureaus and offices in its draft PRA policy directive which is currently under review. The department commented that it has further increased its vigilance in reviewing Web sites to ensure that forms and information collections related to new activities under the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act were approved. In addition to reviewing its own Web sites to ensure that no unapproved forms are posted, the department also validates its PRA forms on the Business Gateway's Forms.gov Web site. As a result of these actions, the Treasury should be better able to ensure that all forms are approved and contain information required by PRA.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should direct responsible CIOs to improve oversight by periodically reviewing the Web sites of agencies and their agents to ensure that all forms are approved and contain information required by PRA.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation, the Treasury took several actions. In July 2008, it recruited additional staff in the CIO's information collection program. As of March 2009, it had also developed a monthly information collections report that is forwarded to bureaus and offices notifying them to begin the renewal process to minimize PRA violations. It also developed an analysis of its bureaus' and offices' information collection process and workflow (dated September 27, 2007) and a draft charter for a PRA Information Collection Working Group. The department also obtained contractor support (from January 2009 to September 2009) to develop an information collection policy directive and procedures, compliance review guide, certification process guide, standard operating procedures, information collection road map, final PRA charter, and training and awareness materials. According to the contract, the guidance that the contractor develops for the certification process is to be based on the requirements of the act, relevant OMB guidance (such as OMB A-130), and other materials, including our report (GAO-05-424). The contractor is also to revise the draft charter for the PRA Information Collection Working Group. These initiatives should help strengthen the department's information collection program, including the support that the department provides for CIO certifications.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should direct responsible CIOs to strengthen agency support for CIO certifications, including with regard to the necessity of collection, burden reduction efforts, and plans for the use of information collected.

    Agency Affected: Congress

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: According to the department, it complies with requirements of the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) by following OMB's direction in implementing an automated system for preparing and submitting information collection requests to OMB. This system, "the Information Collection Request (ICR) module of [OMB's] RISC and OIRA Consolidated Information System (ROCIS)," according to the department, "provides a more robust replacement for OMB Form 83-I which includes the related certification requirements." However, this system is used after the CIO provides the certifications required by PRA; the department has not taken concrete steps to strengthen the support that program offices provide to obtain CIO certifications.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should direct responsible CIOs to strengthen agency support for CIO certifications, including with regard to the necessity of collection, burden reduction efforts, and plans for the use of information collected.

    Agency Affected: Congress

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HUD established a "PRA Compliance Officer" in each major program office and raised the level of authority within program offices for approving information requests to be sent to the CIO.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should direct responsible CIOs to strengthen agency support for CIO certifications, including with regard to the necessity of collection, burden reduction efforts, and plans for the use of information collected.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In 2006, the department reported that new agency information collection requests were routed through the Office of Information and Technology and consultations with OMB on any questions about the proposed collections were encouraged. In addition, according to VA's 2007 budget submission, the department obtained additional resources to help review and analyze its information collections. However, although these steps may improve the department's process, they do not address the need to strengthen support for certifications by its Chief Information Officer (CIO), including with regard to the necessity of collection, burden reduction efforts, and plans for the use of information collected. The department has not issued guidance or taken other steps in response to our recommendation to strengthen agency support for CIO certifications.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should direct responsible CIOs to strengthen agency support for CIO certifications, including with regard to the necessity of collection, burden reduction efforts, and plans for the use of information collected.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since the recommendation was made, OMB began including a reminder to agencies of the importance of PRA requirements in its annual data calls to agency Chief Information Officers (CIO) for information to support preparation and submission of the annual Information Collection Budget (ICB). These memos, issued in September 2006 and February 2008, include a reminder of "the importance of the requirement that a senior agency official certify that PRA standards have been met." Specifically, OMB calls on CIOs to review their procedures to ensure that this certification process is robust. This includes "ensuring that, when seeking OMB approval of an information collection, you have taken steps to (1) reduce burden on the members of the public providing the information, (2) determine whether small entities are affected by the collection and to reduce reporting burden on these entities, and (3) establish a plan for the management and use of information to be collected and identify necessary resources." In addition, the data call went on to remind agencies of the importance of periodically reviewing Web sites to ensure that all forms subject to the PRA have been approved by OMB. The ICB memo of September 2006 is posted on the OMB Web site, where it is available to the public and all agency personnel (http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/assets/omb/inforeg/icb/data_call_agencies092906.pdf).

    Recommendation: To help ensure that program office staff, as well as CIO staff, is fully aware of the requirements and importance of the information process, the Director, OMB, should make the revised guidance available to all agency personnel.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since the recommendation was made, OMB began including a reminder to agencies of "the importance of periodically reviewing your websites to ensure that all forms subject to the PRA have been approved by OMB" in its annual data calls to agency Chief Information Officers for information to support preparation and submission of the annual Information Collection Budget. This reminder appears in memos issued in September 2006 and February 2008, Including such reminders in annual guidance to agencies should help improve agency awareness and strengthen the federal government's information collection program.

    Recommendation: The Director, OMB, should alter its current guidance to all federal agencies to require agencies to periodically review Web sites to (1) identify any forms that may not have been approved by OMB and (2) ensure that all approved forms include required information.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  8. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: OMB disagreed with this recommendation, stating that it interprets publication in the Federal Register as the principal means of agency consultation with the public, with PRA notices on forms providing an opportunity for further public input. OMB believes that additional consulting should occur on those collections that are particularly important. However, GAO continues to believe that the language of the act clearly requires consultation to occur on every collection. In its July 29, 2009, response to GAO inquiry, OMB stated that the office continues to believe that the PRA does not require agencies to "otherwise consult" on each and every information collection. According to OMB, for those collections that are particularly important or technical, agencies should and do make efforts to obtain additional public feedback (e.g., public meetings, surveys, consultations with outside experts). OMB continues to believe that this approach ensures that (1) the public is given an adequate opportunity to provide feedback to agencies on information collections and the burden they impose and (2) agencies take appropriate steps to obtain additional input on collections that are particularly burdensome and important. Accordingly, OMB does not intend to implement this recommendation and no action has been taken.

    Recommendation: The Director, OMB, should alter its current guidance to all federal agencies to direct agencies to consult with potential respondents beyond the publication of Federal Register notices.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  9. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: OMB called on CIOs to review certification procedures in memos issued in September 2006 and February 2008, including "ensuring that, when seeking OMB approval of an information collection, agencies have taken steps to (1) reduce burden on the members of the public providing the information, (2) determine whether small entities are affected by the collection and to reduce reporting burden on these entities, and (3) establish a plan for the management and use of information to be collected and identify necessary resources." However, it did not clarify the kinds of support it asks agencies to provide for these certifications.

    Recommendation: The Director, OMB, should alter its current guidance to all federal agencies to clarify the kinds of support it asks agency CIOs to provide for certifications, including that agencies have taken steps to (1) reduce burden on those providing the information, (2) determine whether small entities are affected by the collection and to reduce reporting burden on these entities, and (3) establish a plan for the management and use of information to be collected and identify necessary resources.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  10. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2006, OMB updated parts of its guidance to agencies on a particular type of information collection: surveys and statistical collections. The guidance is aimed at strengthening the support that agencies must provide for certifying collections, as we recommended. For example, it requires agencies submitting requests for approval to include context and detail that will allow OMB to evaluate the practical utility of the information to be collected. OMB addressed all information collections in data calls to agency Chief Information Officers (CIO) for information to support preparation and submission of the annual Information Collection Budget (ICB). In these memos, issued in September 2006 and February 2008, OMB included language that emphasized "the importance of the requirement that a senior agency official certify that PRA standards have been met" and called on CIOs to review their procedures to ensure that the certification process is robust. Including such reminders in annual guidance to agencies should help improve agency awareness and strengthen the federal government's information collection program.

    Recommendation: The Director, OMB, should alter its current guidance to all federal agencies to emphasize the importance of information collection requirements and the need for management support.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  11. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The department reported that it continues to use focus groups to test certain surveys, but it has not expanded their use or increased other forms of consultation with potential respondents beyond the publication of Federal Register notices.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should direct responsible CIOs to ensure that consultation with potential respondents occurs beyond the publication of Federal Register notices.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  12. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department of the Treasury did not concur with this recommendation. The department stated that public consultation on every information collection every time it is subject to OMB review is not an efficient allocation of resources. In addition, the department stated its belief that it is best left to each bureau to determine whether each collection warrants such consultation, taking into account the nature of the collection and the sophistication of the potential respondents.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should direct responsible CIOs to ensure that consultation with potential respondents occurs beyond the publication of Federal Register notices.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  13. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HUD agreed that efforts could be further intensified to seek public comment on information collection activities. In response to our recommendation, it developed a PRA checklist that includes a line item asking about efforts to consult with entities outside the department. According to HUD, this checklist has been used consistently since it was introduced in July 2005. In February 2006, HUD completed revising the chapter in its handbook on Information Resources Management (IRM) Policies that outlined PRA policies and responsibilities. This chapter requires HUD Offices that collect information to designate PRA Compliance Officers, responsible for ensuring adherence to PRA within program office; the PRA public consultation requirement is included in the handbook. In addition, in the department?s PRA training, staff is encouraged to consider that "OMB is very much in favor of up to 3 consultations."

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should direct responsible CIOs to ensure that consultation with potential respondents occurs beyond the publication of Federal Register notices.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  14. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HUD has implemented a review of the department's Web site that will ensure that only currently approved forms are posted. Also, HUD program staff were sent to OMB training on the Paperwork Reduction Act and additional training has been developed internally for program support staff.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should direct responsible CIOs to improve oversight by periodically reviewing the Web sites of agencies and their agents to ensure that all forms are approved and contain information required by PRA.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

  15. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The department reported in July 2006 that the Veterans Health Administration has begun new procedures for review of Web surveys to ensure that they are in compliance with the Paperwork Reduction Act. In July 2008, VA updated its Handbook 6102, Internet/Intranet Services. This handbook requires that before being posted on a VA Web site, all forms are to be approved by VA Forms Managers of each administration, and it describes requirements for compliance of information collection forms with PRA. According to VA, its Forms Managers collectively monitor forms on the agency's Web sites. In addition, as of September 2009, VA is in the process of updating its handbook on Forms Management Procedures.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should direct responsible CIOs to improve oversight by periodically reviewing the Web sites of agencies and their agents to ensure that all forms are approved and contain information required by PRA.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

  16. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Labor's CIO is conducting an audit to ensure that all forms on its Web sites display a valid OMB control number.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should direct responsible CIOs to improve oversight by periodically reviewing the Web sites of agencies and their agents to ensure that all forms are approved and contain information required by PRA.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury

  17. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Labor added the required information to all public use forms on its Web sites that were identified as lacking information required by the Paperwork Reduction Act. In addition, it has centralized the management of its Web sites within the Office of Public Affairs, plans to annually audit its agencies' Web sites to ensure that all forms display a currently valid OMB control number and other required information, is amending its policies to require that all discontinued forms be removed from the Web site within five business days and is developing a checklist of required PRA information to assure it is clearly displayed on forms.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should direct responsible CIOs to add required information to all forms on Web sites that we identified as lacking this information.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  18. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to this recommendation, VA took action on forms identified by GAO by revising, replacing, or discontinuing them, or providing other explanations. Revised forms show the information required by the Paperwork Reduction Act.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should direct responsible CIOs to add required information to all forms on Web sites that we identified as lacking this information.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury

  19. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On July 14, 2006, the department reported that it had added all required information to its forms as recommended. A check of a selection of forms addressed in the report indicated that the information had been added.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should direct responsible CIOs to add required information to all forms on Web sites that we identified as lacking this information.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

  20. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Treasury did not concur with this recommendation. Treasury believes that it is providing the required information to the forms identified in GAO's report. In addition, according to the department, certain tax forms were not missing required information because the IRS received expiration waivers for expired dates on these forms.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should direct responsible CIOs to add required information to all forms on Web sites that we identified as lacking this information.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

  21. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our report, the Department of the Treasury removed an obsolete form from its Web site and submitted two others to OMB for approval. For certain other forms, the department and the Office of Management and Budget agreed that they were not subject to the Paperwork Reduction Act. We continue to disagree with this conclusion.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should direct responsible CIOs to remove all forms from agency Web sites that have not been approved by OMB until such approval is obtained.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  22. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HUD removed the forms, began requiring better coordination between the staff running HUD's Web site and the CIO when posting forms to the site, and began improved monitoring of the Web site.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should direct responsible CIOs to remove all forms from agency Web sites that have not been approved by OMB until such approval is obtained.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury

  23. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On July 10, 2006, the department reported that it removed all forms from its Web site that had no OMB approval. A check of a selection of forms addressed in the report indicated that the information had been added.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should direct responsible CIOs to remove all forms from agency Web sites that have not been approved by OMB until such approval is obtained.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  24. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Labor removed all public use forms from its Web sites that were not approved by OMB and is conducting an audit to ensure all forms display a valid OMB number.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should direct responsible CIOs to remove all forms from agency Web sites that have not been approved by OMB until such approval is obtained.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  25. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The department reports that such consultation efforts are not practical for routine extensions of collections. In its January 2009 response to GAO follow-up on this recommendation, the Department of Labor stated that on July 7, 2005, the Departmental Clearance Officer met with sub-agency staff to explore viable strategies for ensuring that consultation with potential respondents occurs beyond the Federal Register notices. It was determined that such consultations generally occur for significant or controversial new or revised collections of information as well as collections of information contained in rulemaking actions. In terms of resources, it was determined that such consultation efforts were not practical for routine extensions under the Paperwork Reduction Act. According to the department, it appropriately implements OMB's current guidance in this regard by requiring programs to discuss preclearance notice and comment results and as applicable to discuss efforts to "otherwise consult with members of the public and affected agencies concerning proposed collections of information." GAO's position remains that the Paperwork Reduction Act instructs agencies to publish Federal Register notices and (not or) otherwise consult with potential respondents.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should direct responsible CIOs to ensure that consultation with potential respondents occurs beyond the publication of Federal Register notices.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

 

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