A federal agency having trouble adapting to the Internet age has finally stopped charging customers for one senator’s reports — but is still charging for thousands of other documents that are available online, for free, and reachable through a simple Google search.
Under pressure from Sen. Tom Coburn, the National Technical Information Service last week quietly stopped charging for reports written by the Oklahoma Republican. But NTIS is still charging for other lawmakers’ reports, and those of other federal agencies — even though those documents, like Mr. Coburn’s reports, are all easily available online.
The NTIS’s decision appears to set a new precedent, which raises the question of what would happen if other agencies or members of Congress also demanded their reports be shared for free.
“Their decision shows that shining a light on wasteful spending can yield real savings,” said John Hart, a spokesman for Mr. Coburn, who has earned the reputation as Congress’s top waste-watcher. “If 535 offices followed Dr. Coburn’s model we’d save even more. This is just one area of waste out of thousands. Now, NTIS needs to stop charging for other reports as well.”
The agency confirmed to The Washington Times it had stopped charging for Mr. Coburn’s reports, but a spokeswoman would say little else about it — and wouldn’t answer questions about the precedent the agency had now set.
The NTIS, formed in 1950 as a clearinghouse for technical papers for the government, seems to be an agency in search of a raison d’etre in the Internet age, when most information is shared online for free.
The Government Accountability Office has released several reports over the last 15 years questioning the NTIS’s business model. The agency lost money for 10 straight years on its report-selling business, and only stayed solvent thanks to other services it offers federal agencies, such as document-scanning or online training.
“NTIS’s declining revenue associated with its basic statutory function and the charging for information that is often freely available elsewhere suggests that the fee-based model under which NTIS currently operates for disseminating technical information may no longer be viable and appropriate,” GAO investigators said in a 2012 report.
Ironically, the NTIS charges money for that 2012 GAO report.
In a letter to Mr. Coburn last week, Bruce Borzino, the agency director, said he believes the agency is “succeeding” at its mission.
He said he recognized “we all live in a search-engine-enabled world,” and said his agency is trying to adapt by developing other ways to aggregate and search scientific and technological documents and to search the data linked to the technical reports.
He also pointedly noted that the half-dozen Coburn reports the agency had offered for sale had never had any customers.
“The public has not requested any of these reports to date, so no money has been collected for their dissemination or printing,” he wrote to Mr. Coburn, who had requested that information.
Despite making Mr. Coburn’s reports available for free, NTIS is still charging for hundreds of reports from the rest of Congress:
• $15 for an electronic version of a December 2008 report on California’s recession by Sen. Barbara Boxer, which is available for free on her website;
• $25 for an electronic copy and $73 for a print copy of a June 2009 report by Sen. Carl Levin and Mr. Coburn looking at wheat market speculation, which can be found on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s website for free;
• a report from top House Republicans attacking Obamacare, for which the agency is charging a minimum of $15 but which is accessible on a number of House GOP websites — again, for free.
Also available — for a charge — are hundreds of reports from the GAO and the Congressional Budget Office. Like the congressional members’ documents, the GAO and CBO reports are all available for free on their websites, and are easily accessible through a Google search or a search at either agency’s website.
NTIS holds a database of more than 3 million federal documents, and boasts that its search functions make it easy to find documents.
Oddly enough, NTIS hasn’t updated its search function to correct GAO’s new name. Instead, NTIS lists the agency under its old name, the General Accounting Office, which the GAO discarded a decade ago.
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