Introduction

The Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) is a law governing how federal agencies collect information from the American public. The PRA has many important goals. The following information will provide insight and guidance into these specific goals.

Key takeaways

  • Nothing gathered with "direct observation" is subject to the PRA

  • If you need to make changes to a form, those are considered "de minimis," and don't need approval.

  • If you're adding fields or making a new form, you will need to go through the approval process

Official memos that explain exclusions:

Compliance Tools

Common Scenarios with Examples

1. Scenario: Creating/modifying forms that are entirely used by government employees to complete their official duties

Fact: If you are working on a form that will be used by a federal employee or contractor to complete their official duty, you do not need OMB PRA approval.

Example A: You are completing a system for disability claims processing, used by the VA to enter, track and review data about VA disability claims. This does not require PRA approval, because the information is not being collected from the public, but by federal employees to do their jobs.

Example B: You are modifying the SF-86 form (which federal employees and potential employees complete to be considered for positions requiring a security clearance). This form IS NOT automatically exempted from PRA even though it is completed by citizens seeking government employment. However, your changes may be exempted for other reasons (for example, if the changes are de minimis).

2. Scenario: Changing the look, feel and/or language of an existing online form

Fact: You do not need OMB PRA approval for "de minimis" changes. De minimis changes are changes to a form that affect the look and feel of a collection, but do not change the nature or type of information (e.g., data elements) collected. In addition, de minimis changes do not increase the burden of a collection, though they might reduce its burden (i.e. eliminating fields). An example of a de minimis change is one that is exclusively cosmetic in nature (e.g., changing colors, visual layouts, field sizes). See this memo for details.

Example A: You are changing the way an online form collects social security numbers and birthdate to make the data easier for users to type into the system. This is a de minimis change and does not require PRA approval because it is not changing the nature of information collected.

Example B: You are changing the web form to be a simpler "wizard" that guides users through the required fields over the course of multiple screens, rather than putting all fields on one long screen. This is a de minimis change because it affects the look and feel of the collection, but not the nature or type of information collected.

Example C: You are adding demographic information fields to the online form, because the agency realized it would like more pieces of information about the citizens using a given service. This is NOT a de minimis change because it is changing the data elements being collected.

3. Scenario: Conducting User Research using Direct Observation techniques

Almost no types of user research requires PRA approval.

Fact: Nothing gathered via "direct observation" research techniques such as in-person interviews or usability tests is subject to the PRA.

Example A: Watching a citizen trying to apply for VA HealthCare and observing their reactions, asking about their experience, and getting feedback is exempted from PRA because it is Direct Observation.

Example B: Showing a group of high school students wireframes of a potential application and asking for their reaction does not require OMB PRA approval.

4. Scenario: Conducting user research on government employees

Fact: PRA does not apply to surveys of government employees if the questions related to their official duties.

Example A: When asking a USCIS adjudicator about their job and how they complete it, their pain points, etc., PRA does not apply.

Example B: Conducting a large-scale survey of Deptartment of Education employees about their own experiences guiding their children through a student loan application process would not be automatically exempted from PRA requirements because the topic is not about their official duty (though this may be exempted for other reasons).

5. Scenario: Creating a "wizard" or "calculator" that helps users understand how a service might impact them based on their personal situation

Fact: The PRA does not apply to items collected to allow users to obtain information from an agency formula or table, even if citizens enter data about themselves in order to use the tool or calculator. This exception only applies if the items collected are solely those necessary for the user to obtain such information and will not be used by the agency for other purposes, such as to inform research and statistics or to determine program funding.

Example A: You are building a tool to help individuals learn what type of student loan repayment program they might qualify for. The tool asks the individual about their income level, job type, and type of student loans. The tool uses this information to calculate which repayment programs the user is eligible for based on this input and displays details of these programs to the user. The tool does not store the data submitted by the user, or use it for any other purpose. Using the tool is not a pre-requisite for applying to one of the programs. This tool does not require OMB PRA approval because the tool allows users to obtain information from an agency "formula" and does not use the information for any other purpose.

Example B: The Department of Health and Human Services' National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute offers users a Body Mass Index (BMI) calculator. 18 To obtain a BMI output, a user must provide height and weight inputs. This tool does not ask the user for any items beyond what are necessary to calculate the BMI, and the items are not used for other purposes, such as to inform research or statistics. The PRA does not apply to the BMI calculator.

Example C: The Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development jointly offer a transportation cost calculator that allows users to obtain locationspecific data by asking for income, housing, and travel inputs. These items are necessary for the formula that calculates the transportation cost calculator output, and they are not used for any other purpose, such as to determine area funding or programmatic need. The PRA does not apply to the agencies' joint transportation cost calculator.

6. Scenario: Collecting metrics and feedback from users on the website

This is a work in progress

Tactics for overcoming PRA roadblocks:

This is a work in progress

  • When developing a usability test question guide, refer to it as "conversation guide" not a "script" to make it obvious that this is just a guide to a conversation, not a structured survey.

  • If your change gets classified as "non substantiative change" you are going to have to go through the process. You will have to personally guide the process. Create deadlines, artificial meetings, etc. There is no standard timeline for non-substantive change reviews.

Key Citations from OMB Guidance

Topic

Citation

Source

Changing the look and feel of a form

"Agencies are encouraged to use existing administrative flexibilities to facilitate changes, where appropriate. For example, certain types of changes to forms, known as de minimis changes, do not require OMB approval under the PRA. De minimis changes to a collection are those changes that affect the look and feel of a collection, but do not change the nature or type ofinformation (e.g., data elements) collected. In addition, de minimis changes do not increase the burden of a collection, though they might reduce its burden. An example of a de minimis change is one that is exclusively cosmetic in nature (e.g., changing colors, visual layouts, field sizes)."

Behavioral Science Insights and Federal Forms, September 15, 2015, page 3

Direct observation does not require PRA approval

On a list of items not considered to be "information" under the PRA is "Facts or opinions obtained through direct observation by an employee or agent of the sponsoring agency or through non-standardized oral communication in connection with such direct observations" 5 C.F.R. 1320.3(h)(3)

Exclusions to the regulatory definition of “information” under Paperwork Reduction Act (September 5, 2014) Page 1

PRA does not apply to search tools / filtering tools

"This Memorandum clarifies that the PRA does not apply to items collected to allow users to select or customize agency data. This category includes filtering data content through drop down menus and standardized text or numeric entries. However, items collected beyond what are necessary for users to select or customize agency data are subject to the PRA. For example, the Department of Energy's http://fueleconomy.gov website offers users a "Find and Compare Cars" tool. This website provides users options to select from a list of car models or classes as a means of customizing the presentation of fuel economy and fuel cost data."

Web-based Interactive Technologies: Data Search Tools, Calculators, and the Paperwork Reduction Act, Page 4

PRA does not apply to calculators

"This Memorandum clarifies that the PRA does not apply to items collected to allow users to obtain information from an agency formula or table, if the items are solely those necessary for the user to obtain such information and will not be used by the agency for other purposes, such as to inform research and statistics or to determine program funding. For web-based technologies, users often obtain information from a formula or table in the form of a calculator output. Information collected beyond what is necessary for a user to obtain a calculator output is subject to the PRA. <br><br> For example, the Department of Health and Human Services' National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute offers users a Body Mass Index (BMI) calculator. To obtain a BMI output, a user must provide height and weight inputs. This tool does not ask the user for any items beyond what are necessary to calculate the BMI, and the items are not used for other purposes, such as to inform research or statistics. The PRA does not apply to the BMI calculator. <br><br> In some circumstances, an agency might sponsor or manage a calculator that also includes data search elements. For example, the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics offers users a Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation calculator. This calculator permits users to input a dollar amount-necessary for the valid use of the purchasing power formula-and to select data sets for comparison. The dollar amount is necessary for the formula that estimates purchasing power, and it is not used for any other purpose, such as to inform research or statistics. The PRA does not apply to the CPI inflation calculator. <br><br> Similarly, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development jointly offer a transportation cost calculator that allows users to obtain locationspecific data by asking for income, housing, and travel inputs. These items are necessary for the formula that calculates the transportation cost calculator output, and they are not used for any other purpose, such as to determine area funding or programmatic need. The PRA does not apply to the agencies' joint transportation cost calculator.<br><br> These three examples of "like items," which are not subject to the PRA, can also help explain the web-based interactive technologies that would be subject to the PRA. If a calculator or similar web-based interactive technology asks for items that are not necessary for the valid use of their underlying formulas or data sets, they are subject to the PRA. For example, the BMI calculator only collects the necessary formula inputs: height and weight. If the BMI calculator included age or zip code, for example, the calculator would be subject to the PRA. If items collected by web-based interactive technologies inform research or statistics, they would be subject to the PRA"

Web-based Interactive Technologies: Data Search Tools, Calculators,and the Paperwork Reduction Act, Page 4


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