"CONVERSATIONS WITH AMERICA"
Frequently Asked Questions about Customer Survey Clearance and the Paperwork Reduction Act
In March, President Clinton asked federal agencies to conduct "conversations with America" to further improve customer service. This initiative has caused agency staff to contact staff at the National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPR) with questions about the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA). The Office of Management and Budget--specifically the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs—administers this law. An agency must get clearance from OMB before it can survey its customers or collect information from the public.
Given the importance of facilitating customer satisfaction surveys and other more structured "conversations," many agencies have already obtained generic clearances for customer satisfaction surveys from OMB. A generic clearance is a master plan for conducting one or more customer surveys. Many agencies have a current generic clearance for customer satisfaction surveys. OMB review for these plans occurs in two stages -- a full review of the overall plan, plus a quick review of the actual details of each customer survey. Once an agency has a plan on which the public has had full opportunity to comment, the agency’s PRA paperwork clearance officer is able to obtain OMB approval for each customer survey very quickly without having to repeat the Federal Register notices or public comment periods. If you think that you want to develop a customer satisfaction questionnaire to assist your efforts, you should consult with your agency’s PRA contact early on.
The following are general answers to the questions most commonly posed to the NPR staff. We caution, however, that this is only a summary discussion. You need to contact your agency PRA paperwork clearance officer to learn the full scope of the PRA and your agency’s procedures for obtaining OMB clearance.
1. What is a generic survey clearance?
A generic clearance is a master plan for conducting one or more customer surveys. OMB review for these plans occurs in two stages -- a full review of the overall plan, plus a quick review of the actual details of each customer survey.
2. When does an agency need a survey clearance?
The Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) was signed by President Clinton in 1995, but the statutory antecedent of the PRA was first signed by President Roosevelt in 1942. The PRA requires that OMB approve each collection of information by a Federal agency before it can be implemented. The statute defines "collection of information" broadly. It covers any identical questions posed to 10 or more members of the public -- whether voluntary or mandatory, whether written, electronic, or oral.
Many "Conversations with America" do not require PRA clearance -- employee conferences, complaint systems, suggestion systems, and town halls, listening sessions, and other meetings with customers (driven by an agenda rather than "questions"). These conversations are either one-on-one, or structured so loosely that the questions are not "identical" within the meaning of the PRA.
On the other hand, the PRA is a statute, and it applies to "conversations with America" just as it applies to other Federal information collections. Customer satisfaction questionnaires, focus groups, websites (seeking a response to more specific questions than just an invitation for open-ended comments) are covered by the PRA.
3. Why is a generic survey clearance important?
A generic survey clearance allows an agency to develop a plan in advance which sets forth how it will conduct customer satisfaction surveys without having to clear the actual instruments until needed. Once an agency has a plan approved by OMB under the PRA on which the public has had full opportunity to comment, the agency’s PRA paperwork clearance officer may request OMB approval for each customer survey covered by the plan without having to repeat the Federal Register notices and public comment periods.
4. Does a generic clearance include surveys conducted on the website?
Surveys (i.e., those containing specific questions, not just containing an invitation for open-ended comments or requesting basic identifying information like name and e-mail address) conducted on the website are covered by the PRA. They need OMB approval before they can be put onto the website.
Whether an agency’s generic clearance includes electronic, oral, or written surveys depends on what the agency requested in its plan, and what OMB has approved. You will need to contact your agency’s PRA paperwork clearance officer.
5. How long does the process for generic clearance take?
To obtain OMB approval for a regular questionnaire, the agency PRA paperwork clearance officer assembles a clearance package including the draft questionnaire and its justification, and puts a notice in the Federal Register seeking public comment for 60 days. The PRA paperwork clearance officer then perhaps amends the draft questionnaire in response to comments received during the comment period, submits the clearance package to OMB for approval, and publishes a 30-day notice in the Federal Register notifying the public it can comment to OMB. OMB will then approve or disapprove the agency’s clearance package. Given these public notices, the normal clearance process will total at least 100 days. The process for obtaining a generic clearance takes as long as any other normal clearance.
6. How long is a generic clearance good for?
The expiration date on any PRA clearance is set when OMB approves it. This time is generally three years (the maximum allowable under the PRA), but may be less if appropriate to the agency’s plan.
7. Is there a fast track method for obtaining a generic clearance?
Generally no. The purpose of obtaining a generic clearance is to have the agency plan in advance for the kinds of customer satisfaction surveys it wishes to conduct, and to give the public the opportunity to comment concerning this plan -- in return for the quick review and approval of individual customer satisfaction surveys conducted under the agency’s plan.
OMB is able to provide an "emergency" clearance that permits the agency to avoid the 60-day and 30-day Federal Register notices seeking public comment if the emergency situation warrants it. (Under the PRA, an "emergency" approval is only valid for a maximum of 6 months). OMB has and will grant an "emergency" approval for individual customer satisfaction surveys based on agreements reached between OMB and the agency’s PRA paperwork clearance officer. You should consult with your agency’s PRA paperwork clearance officer before you seek an emergency clearance.
8. Is there a way to keep a survey clearance in place while an agency is waiting for an extension of its generic survey clearance?
Under the PRA, an OMB approval is valid for a maximum of three years. If the agency’s PRA paperwork clearance officer sees that an approval for a generic clearance is about to expire, he or she can ask OMB to extend the existing clearance for three months while he or she prepares the formal request for a three year extension. Once the formal request for a three year extension is submitted, OMB will keep the existing clearance in effect until OMB acts on the formal request for extension. If a survey is changed, it must be submitted for OMB review.
9. Is an OMB clearance necessary for Federal surveys sent to State, local, and tribal governments?
Yes. As indicated in the answer to Question 2, the PRA covers any identical questions posed to 10 or more members of the public -- whether voluntary or mandatory, whether written, electronic, or oral.
A more formal answer is that the PRA covers identical questions posed to 10 or more "persons." "Person" is a term defined in the PRA to include any individual, business, institution (including schools, nonprofits, etc.); State, tribal, or local government or branch or political subdivision thereof, or any other entity. The PRA excludes identical questions posed to 10 or more agencies, instrumentalities, or employees of the United States (unless they are to be used for general statistical purposes).
10. Has there been any type of decision to change the Paperwork Reduction Act as a result of GPRA requirements to collect customer information?
There is no intent to change the Paperwork Reduction Act at this time. The PRA and GPRA are compatible and serve similar purposes. OMB, as the lead agency on the government’s GPRA efforts, is fully aware of the need for agencies to collect customer information to help them meet GPRA requirements, and is working with the agency PRA paperwork clearance officers to facilitate their clearance of such surveys.
11. When is a comment card subject to PRA clearance?
A comment card may or may not be subject to PRA clearance, depending on the kinds of questions it contains. If the comment card contains specific questions seeking a focused response, it could need clearance under the PRA. If the comment card only invites open-ended comments, it may not need clearance under the PRA.
Your agency PRA paperwork clearance officers are quite familiar with this issue, and have reached understandings with OMB on what kinds of questions (for example, on a website or on a comment card) are "in" or "out." You should consult with them before you use any comment card.
12. Do focus groups need Paperwork Reduction Act clearance?
Yes -- assuming that the focus groups are working from predetermined scripts that are being asked each group.
13. Is there a limit to the amount of burden hours that an agency may receive?
No. Each year, agencies agree to a target for the paperwork burden hours that they will impose on the public, and OMB publishes those targets in the Information Collection Budget. This is, however, only a target. The agency’s PRA paperwork clearance officer is able to send OMB whatever clearance packages he or she wants.
14. What are some survey development resources within the Federal government?
Please ask your agency’s PRA paperwork clearance officer for a copy of OMB’s Resource Manual for Customer Surveys.
15. Do we have to comply with the Paperwork Reduction Act?
As indicated in the answer to Question 2, many "conversations with America" do not require PRA clearance -- employee conferences, complaint systems, suggestion systems, and town halls and other meetings with customers (driven by an agenda rather than "questions"). These conversations are either one-on-one, or structured so loosely that the questions are not "identical" within the meaning of the PRA.
On the other hand, the PRA is a statute. The PRA has been in effect for over 55 years. Three years ago, it passed the Senate by a vote of 99 to 0, and the House by a vote of 418 to 0. President Clinton signed the PRA into law with enthusiasm, stating, "[t]he Paperwork Reduction Act helps us to conquer a mountain of paperwork that is crushing our people and wasting a lot of time ... ."
The PRA applies to "conversations with America" just as it applies to other Federal information collections. Customer satisfaction questionnaires, focus groups, websites (seeking a response to more specific questions than just an invitation for open-ended comments) are covered by the PRA.
16. Why is the Paperwork Reduction Act required when there are two executive orders requiring agencies to survey their customers?
The Federal government has many statutory responsibilities that include investing in education and training, strengthening health care, protecting the environment, promoting useful research, enforcing the law, and collecting taxes. In carrying out these statutory responsibilities, agencies collect information -- and submit their surveys, recordkeeping requirements, and other collections of information to OMB for review and approval under the PRA. The same is true for collections of information carried out to meet Presidential initiatives embodied in Executive Orders.