Everything old is new again

Monday - 8/11/2014, 3:58am EDT

Commentary by Jeff Neal
Founder of ChiefHRO.com
& Senior Vice President, ICF International

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal's blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.

Fifteen years ago, the Department of Commerce proposed abolishing the National Technical Information Service (NTIS), an agency that serves as a repository for government-funded scientific, technical, engineering and business-related information and provides a variety of services to other federal agencies. In 1999, their view was that NTIS had outlived its usefulness. Much of the material they cataloged and sold was becoming available on the Internet, and they believed the agencies whose material NTIS houses could simply maintain their own material.

Jeff Neal

I was the deputy director of Human Resources for Commerce at the time, so I became very involved in the discussion. Like several other senior executives and political appointees in the department, I believed there was still value in the services NTIS offers. While it was true that much of what they sell was available online, much of it was not. There are also a lot of people who want to consume information in printed form. Given a choice of online and free or printed for a fee, they will go with printed.

After much internal debate, discussion and arguing, the department agreed that NTIS would be downsized, but would remain in place. The decision was based in part on the idea that the government invests a tremendous amount of money in producing information and cannot rely on countless websites, government and non-government, to maintain the information.

Much of what is maintained online is driven by traffic. If it gets enough hits, it stays up. If not, it may be deleted. The NTIS decision was based on sound logic, resulted in savings for the taxpayers, and ensured the wealth of information they maintained would be available to the people (you) who paid for it.

Fast forward 15 years. There is a Senate bill called the "Let Me Google That For You Act" that proposes abolishing NTIS for the same reasons stated 15 years ago. I have to give the bill's sponsors credit for a catchy name for the bill, but beyond that I think there is more to consider than just how the Internet has changed the storage and retrieval of information.

  • The bill references a 2012 GAO report that said 74 percent of the information NTIS sells is available free on agency websites and in other locations. That means a quarter of such information is not available and it says nothing about how long the information will be on those websites.

  • NTIS is not the only agency that sells printed versions of documents that are available free from various sites on the Internet. The Legislative Branch Government Printing Office sells print copies of many documents, including budget reports and others, that are freely available as electronic versions. The simple fact is some people want or need print editions. As much as many of us have embraced technology, some people have not or cannot.

  • "Free" isn't free. Information on agency websites has a cost. They pay for hosting, security, programming, site design, maintenance and other operating costs. Because the money is not charged directly to consumers of the information, we think of it as free when it is not.

  • NTIS operates using a revolving fund rather than appropriated money. Because it has to earn its keep, they sell products and services (full disclosure — my employer ICF International is an NTIS Joint Venture Partner). Agencies such as NTIS that operate using revolving funds have to function much more like businesses. They identify products and services they can sell, determine how they can add value to customers, market their services, and add or subtract staff based on revenues. If they fail to bring in adequate revenue, they suffer the consequences, much like anyone in the private sector. Thus, the market can and does decide whether NTIS should exist.

My views on NTIS have not changed since I was involved with them 15 years ago. I am concerned that much of the information available from NTIS will cease to be available if NTIS is abolished and a well-established service provider will go away.

If there is going to be a public policy discussion regarding the mission and existence of NTIS, my recommendation is that it be expanded into a comprehensive look at how the government maintains and provides access to the vast amounts of information it pays for. Findings resulting from government grants for scientific research, technical data, reports from government agencies, and countless other types of data are produced every day. Taxpayers should have access to the information their tax dollars support. Relying on commercial search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Bing to find the information and hoping agencies will maintain it on their websites for years doesn't seem to be the best public policy.

We would be better off if one or more agencies are charged with maintaining and making that information available. The funding mechanism should be part of that debate. Some would argue it should be funded with appropriated money, while others would argue it should be funded by the people and organizations that consume the information. Both ideas have merit.

The issues the sponsors of this bill have raised are valid topics for a public policy discussion. Let's have that discussion on a broad basis rather than focusing on one small agency. The result could be substantially more access to information at a reasonable cost.

Copyright 2013 by Jeff Neal. All rights reserved.


Jeff Neal is founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com, and a senior vice president for ICF International, where he leads the Organizational Research, Learning and Performance practice. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.