Agencies must publish plans to ax federal publications

In this historic fiscal year, Congress and the White House played political football with the executive branch in a game whose final score adds up to drastically slimmer resources for most agency programs. Besides planning furloughs and buyouts, agencies are facing the fact that they won't have the money to publish all the print and electronic information products they used to. In back rooms all over town, agencies are now quietly poring over their current publications lists and deciding which titles must be eliminated.

The Clinton administration's bold rhetoric about making government information more accessible to the public is bumping up against the reality of not having the dollars to do so. Making more data more publicly accessible has almost never been budgeted for and hence was always something to be paid for from funds falling within administrative discretion. That discretion will shrink enormously this year. Not only will agencies slow down plans to offer more databases over the Internet, they will stop creating many of the databases and lop off other publications that have been around for years as well. The explosive growth of agency home pages on the World Wide Web may taper to a trickle in the coming months.

The last time something like this happened was in the early Reagan years, when the White House declared war on "wasteful" publications by instituting a governmentwide publications moratorium. Agencies were instructed to prepare plans for reducing and consolidating publications. News photos showed White House counselor Ed Meese gleefully dumping superfluous government documents into a trash barrel, an action Congress and the press labeled "book burning."

This time maybe we won't have librarians and academics screaming about the White House trampling on fundamental information freedoms, but we can still expect the number of government publications to diminish significantly this year.

In the 1980s, the public outcry over the manner in which agencies gutted their publishing programs at White House direction had one lasting effect. It led to the "adequate notice" policy in the Office of Management and Budget's Circular A-130, the requirement that agencies provide adequate notice when initiating, substantially modifying or terminating significant information dissemination products. The policy is now enshrined in statute in the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995.

The idea is that the public comes to depend on government publications and that an agency ought not to cancel a longstanding publication without letting the public have its say. Perhaps the agency has underestimated the publication's popularity with the public, or maybe somebody will step forward and offer to continue the publication in the private sector. Perhaps another agency will volunteer to take up the publishing reins. The agency doesn't know until it asks. Even though it may not alter the final result, informing and listening to the public is a vital step the agency must take when considering whether to abolish a publication.

Some agencies appear to believe that, so long as their actions are budget-driven, they can dispense with informing the public. If they simply don't have the money to continue, they reason, they are under no obligation to seek public input to the decision to curtail publishing. Wrong! The law says they've got to tell the public, no matter what.

So, together with the lists of titles that get the ax, agencies should be preparing Federal Register notices to tell us what their plans are for eliminating print and electronic publications. And OMB should be reminding agencies of their responsibilities under the adequate-notice policy. As long as the agencies went to all the trouble of creating home pages on the Internet, they ought to publish the plans there too.

Sure it's unpleasant to tell people you're discontinuing their favorite newsletter, journal or series of reports, but you might as well be up front about it.

The public knows that times are tough in government, and they've got to expect these things to happen. They'll find out sooner or later anyway, and besides, telling them in advance is now a matter of law.

**

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates, Washington, D.C. He can be reached via the Internet at jtsprehe@intr.net. This column can be read on FCW's home page at http://www.fcw.com.

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