Before there was the Internet, there was the National Technical Information Service. But now that there is an Internet with virtually unlimited storage capacity and powerful search engines, some in Congress think it might be time to delete the NTIS from the list of top-level government domains.
Founded in 1950 as part of the Commerce Department, NTIS has served as a central repository for government-funded scientific and technical reports generated by federal agencies and their contractors, as well as from a multitude of other domestic and foreign sources. The agency, which estimates its holdings at approximately 3 million documents across 350 technical and business topics, is also required to be self-sufficient. So over the course of its existence, NTIS has developed fee-based services involving the cataloguing, collecting and repackaging of documents for other federal agencies.
But now the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee wants to know what NTIS does that the likes of Google and Microsoft don’t in terms of cataloguing documents on the Internet and providing free access. In fact, lawmakers posed that question directly to NTIS Director Bruce Borzino during a hearing Wednesday about the future of NTIS and focused attention on the Let Me Google That For You Act, a bill introduced recently by Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., that would eliminate NTIS and save the government $50 million.
“Why would anyone buy publications from NTIS when they’re free on the Internet?” McCaskill said. “Can we as a Congress come together and cut bureaucracy when it is duplicative and unnecessary?”
As revenue for NTIS from reports and documents has declined over the past decade, it has begun offering other services to agencies for a price. NTIS offers shipping and fulfillment services, e-training services, government webhosting and other information and support services, according to the agency’s website.
During the hearing, McCaskill criticized the agency for potentially circumventing the Federal Acquisition Regulation by working with private sector entities to provide services to federal agencies. The senator also criticized NTIS for offering similar, or duplicative, services that are already offered by the General Services Administration.
“We can’t find any IT services you offer that GSA doesn’t offer,” McCaskill said.
Borzino called NTIS’s partnership with federal agencies a unique one that meets Congress and the Obama Administration’s goal of shared services.
“It’s a joint service partnership,” Borzino said. “Under the partnership program we have, we work with the partner. We provide the program management. We are in the game.”
Both Coburn and McCaskill criticized the agency for a lack of transparency about what its actual role is and directly questioned the statutory justification for the additional services NTIS now offers.
At one point during the hearing, McCaskill asked Borzino if he thought providing the Air Force cookbook through NTIS was consistent with the statutory guidelines used by President Harry. S. Truman to establish NTIS.
“The Air Force recipe cookbook was offered…at a time when DOD did not have the capabilities of making it available and there was a demand for it by the restaurant and services industry,” Borzino said. “It will not be available free.”
“Did you just say the Department of Defense didn’t have the capability of providing a cookbook?” McCaskill asked.
According to Borzino, the Pentagon at the time did not have the ability to disseminate electronic documents to the public. NTIS is now going back through its holdings to ensure it only contains scientific and technical documents, he said.
Access to the 700,000 digitized reports in the NTIS holdings is provided both through the direct sale of individual reports and by subscription to NTIS’s National Technical Reports Library. Prices for individual reports and subscriptions vary, according to a report released Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office. For example, an electronic copy of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Marshall Space Flight Center’s NASA Robotics for Space Exploration report can be purchased for $15, and a customized CD containing the same report can be purchased for $30.
“We’re very transparent,” Borzino said. “Please come down and look at what we’re doing. We’re not hiding anything.”
The new GAO report, however, provides evidence that supports calls to eliminate NTIS. In addition to incurring costs that exceeded revenue for 10 of the last 11 fiscal years, GAO estimated that 74 percent of the documents in the NTIS archive are available elsewhere, and of those, 95 percent are available for free.
The GSA is not the only agency McCaskill compared NTIS’s work to. The senator also questioned the need for NTIS in a world that has both the Government Printing Office and the Library of Congress.
“Why do all of you need to exist?” McCaskill said.
The question of whether or not NTIS should exist is not lost on the agency. On its website, the agency includes a disclaimer at the top of the page that informs visitors they might be able to get the same information for free from a number of different sites online.
“Before purchasing from NTIS, you may want to check for free access from (1) the issuing organization’s website; (2) the U.S. Government Printing Office’s Federal Digital System website http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys; (3) the federal government Internet portal USA.gov; or (4) a web search conducted using a commercial search engine such as http://www.google.com,” the disclaimer states.
@DanielVerton contributed to this report.