In an administration in which a high official used government employees to help him write a book called "Privatizing the Public Sector," anything is possible: just last week a proposal was floated, and predictably sunk, to sell off the Federal Housing Administration. Less publicity has been received, but more damage may be done, by an Office of Management and Budget circular issued Dec. 12 with the sleep-inducing title "Management of Federal Information Resources."
This requires any agency, before it releases government information, to prove that publication would not "duplicate similar products or services that are or would otherwise be provided by other government or private sector organizations." There should be "maximum feasible reliance on the private sector."
In plain English, that means cutting off the flow of statistics from the federal government to its citizens and letting them buy the data from private purveyors. The proposal would likely reduce the number of printed government publications available in libraries or at low cost and increase the already widespread practice of private outfits interfacing with government computers and providing printouts for users at hefty fees.
This is not the first attack the administration has made on the government's statistical agencies; budget-cutters have hacked away at them, though the amounts of money to be saved are exceedingly small and the amount of damage is very large. Yet one of the most useful things government does is to compile reliable numbers that help people make sense of the world. A public sector that compiles and disseminates statistics is as American as apple pie: the infant republic conducted and published the first national census in 1790, and soon Americans became hooked on statistics. "The many statistical presentations in newspapers, periodicals, almanacs and pamphlets of the Jacksonian years," historian Patricia Cline Cohen writes, "demonstrate that there was a keen popular concern to know how many paupers and how many millionaires there were, how many drunks and how many prostitutes, how many scholars and how many lunatics, how many Democrats and how many Whigs."
It is saving pennies and squandering dollars for the government, in the name of cost-cutting, paperwork-reduction, and privatization, to starve the statistical agencies and choke off the flow of federal statistics from the government agencies to the people. Rep. Glenn English (D-Okla.) spoke out last spring against the earlier draft version of this circular, and OMB made some improvements. But there's still plenty for Mr. English and others in Congress to complain -- and do something -- about.