- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2014

At a time when computers and access to the Web are ubiquitous, an outdated Commerce Department office is wasting taxpayer money by duplicating Internet search engines, fiscal watchdogs said.

The National Technical Information Service was started more than 60 years ago to compile all the government reports, records and research published by other agencies, and act as an accessible central repository, sending — for a fee — documents to agencies that request old information.

Now however, nearly everything published by the government is easy to find through a quick Google search. And with a diminishing demand for its services, NTIS is losing $1 million a year according to the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ watchdog arm.

“Charging for information that is freely available elsewhere is a disservice to the public and may also be wasteful insofar as some of NTIS’s customers are other federal agencies,” the GAO said in a 2012 report.

Philip Wallach, a governance studies fellow at the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning think tank, said the language in the GAO report was harsher than the watchdog normally uses.

“It’s pretty strong in its recommendation that maybe the NTIS is an outmoded agency that doesn’t have a place in the world of 2014,” he said. “It seems kind of horrifying that an employee of another government agency would pay 15 bucks or 50 bucks or whatever to the NTIS to download a paper they could have just downloaded for free online.”

The office even caught the attention of Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican and fiscal hawk who included it in his most recent annual “Wastebook” of programs to cut for reduced spending.

“When NTIS is doing the Googling, the search response comes with a price tag for taxpayers,” the senator’s report said.

NTIS is supposed to be self-sustaining, generating revenue from its fees for providing government records. But the GAO estimated that since 2001, the agency’s costs have been exceeding its revenue by an average of $1.3 million per year. Meanwhile, Mr. Coburn’s office estimates that federal agencies are paying NTIS $50 million annually for its research services.

For lagging behind the current Internet age, and costing taxpayers because of it, the Commerce Department’s National Technical Information Service wins this week’s Golden Hammer, a distinction awarded by The Washington Times to examples of fiscal waste, abuse and mismanagement.

NTIS officials did not return calls from reporters in time for publication, but a 2012 letter from Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank said the department is evaluating how NTIS can best serve the government and taxpayers in the future.

“NTIS recognizes that it cannot remain financially solvent solely through sales and subscriptions of technical reports with expectations that these products be widely available for free,” she said.

John Hart, Mr. Coburn’s chief spokesman, said the best idea is to eliminate NTIS and move any remaining functions to another office.

“This is an outdated office with an outdated function that is trying to make itself useful by providing other services other than those it was originally designed to perform,” he said.

Mr. Wallach said agencies like the NTIS can often escape scrutiny because the fiscal waste isn’t centered in the agency itself. Instead, it’s all the small amounts here and there that other federal employees in other departments are spending to purchase records from the NTIS.

“It’s kind of tiny bits of waste coming from dozens of other agencies, so its kind of hard to see,” he said.

The GAO estimated that the majority of government documents were available from other sources, and that 74 percent of the sample reports they searched for could be found outside NTIS. In fact, investigators found the website that provided access to the most government reports was www.google.com.

Mr. Wallach said that things like the Wastebook and watchdog reports often call attention to wasteful spending, but that it’s ultimately up to Congress to fix the issues and “take the ball over the finish line.” Currently, he said, there’s no legislation being debated in either chamber to defund or reform NTIS.

“Unfortunately, the Congress passes fewer bills now than in any time in recent memory,” he said.

As technology changes, as with the development of the Internet, government needs to respond, Mr. Wallach said.

“Congress is supposed to be the dynamic engine that’s at the heart of adapting to changing conditions,” he said. “Doing that kind of small incremental work isn’t always glamorous, but when you’re looking at ways of improving things, it’s a matter of getting cooperation to get things done.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide