Senators question wisdom of U.S. government office that exists to sell free technical reports


Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) contemplates the future of the National Technical Information Service. (The Office of Senator Claire McCaskill).

With their sassily named Let Me Google That For You Act, Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) are pursuing the possible closure of an obscure, arguably objectionable branch of the Commerce Department called the National Technical Information Service, an office that Coburn pithily summarizes as an entity that "sells free government reports to other federal agencies and the public -- at a loss."

Like many parts of government, NTIS is struggling to figure out how to exist in the digital, networked age. But unlike their colleague agencies, at some point the Internet has threatened to turn NTIS from a useful service into a boondoggle.

The facts: though the NTIS is meant to be self-sustaining, from 2001 through 2011 there was only one year that it made more money selling its 2.5 millions reports and other products than it spent, despite the fact that it has expanded its offerings of technical, scientific, and research reports to include things like a DVD containing "1,700 convenient recipes" for feeding military-size audiences (selling for $79.)

There might seem in all this to be hints of the Office of Technology Assessment, the late, often lamented lamented source of technical expertise that cost-cutting, symbolic and otherwise, killed during the days of the Gingrich revolution.

But NTIS, located in Springfield, Virginia, does something different. Rather than focus on producing original research, it acts as a clearinghouse. Established after World War II, NTIS was initially meant as a mechanism for pushing out to the world the great deal of scientific research that had been produced during the war on behalf of the U.S. government -- as well as, fascinatingly, according to an NTIS in-house history, "the review and release of captured enemy research."

Then scroll down a bit through the years and the Internet happens.

During a Senate hearing last week, the Government Accountability Office presented (free) research showing that a full 76 percent of the NTIS's online offerings collected since 1990 are available elsewhere online and, most importantly, 95 percent of the time at absolutely no cost. Somewhere along the way, that shift seemed to not just make a government service obsolete but to make its premise, and what it's serving up to the American public, arguably fraudulent.

Still, at the hearing, NTIS Director Bruce Borzino did his best to defend why, despite the fact that its Web site could well have served as a prop in "Hackers," NTIS's function is "as critical today, in the Internet age, as it has ever been."

Borzino's argument starts with completeness: the flip side of GAO's finding that a full three-quarters of NTIS's offerings are available elsewhere online is that a full quarter of them aren't, at least not from the "public sources searched by GAO, including the issuing agency website, GPO, USA.gov, and Google search."

It's a sort of civic Long Tail effect at work. No matter that between 1995 and 2000, NTIS only sold 8 percent of its inventory, it's important that the federal government make the rest available, not for profit, as an Amazon (whose owner owns the Washington Post) or a Netflix might, but because there's a public benefit to making sure those materials are accessible just in case.

There's also the slightly more novel case that NTIS is serving a purpose behind the scenes, one only made possible because of the Internet. The office, argues Borzino, helps to surface obscure reports even if its would-be customers ultimately acquire them from elsewhere. How so? Tagging and the like.

"Search engines can more easily find reports and documents that have had the underlying bibliographic metadata coding created by the Service," testified Borzino. "NTIS sitemaps and indexing enables and complements private search engines." Call it, perhaps, SEO in service of your country.

Still, Borzino was willing to admit that there are changes to made at NTIS; in fact, it just made one: the week before the hearing, he said, NTIS.gov added a banner that reads, "Before purchasing from NTIS, you may want to check for free access" from official sites or from search engines.


A week before a Senate committee held a hearing questioning the NTIS's reason for being, the office added disclaimer to its Web site letting users know that they might be able to find its offerings elsewhere online, sometimes for free.

Hand to her temple, McCaskill complained that the banner seemed extremely small -- much, she suggested, like NTIS's mandate circa 2014.

An agency whose viability seems to depend upon consumers not being able to navigate the Internet well enough to know that they can get what they want elsewhere for free is, argued McCaskill, one with a business model beneath the United States federal government.

"The notion that depending on where you're lucky enough to click is going to decide whether or not you pay for something is wrong," the senator told Borzino. "It's just flat wrong. And we've got to stop it."

Nancy Scola is a reporter who covers the intersections of technology and public policy, politics, and governance.

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Nancy Scola · July 28, 2014