Panel mulls change in federal role

A panel of public and private experts in geospatial processing began meeting last month to consider whether civilian agencies should cut back on geographic information programs and services funded by the federal government which are estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars a year.

The group organized by the National Academy of Public Administration will consider whether some of the huge amount of geographic information that civilian agencies collect manage and create could be transferred to state and local governments outsourced or terminated. The group also will measure the importance of geospatial processing to the U.S. economy and its importance to keeping the nation competitive in a global economy.

"Advances in surveying mapping and other geographic information technologies the trend toward devolution of federal programs and activities toward state and local governments and the impact of U.S. budget deficits on economic growth over the past decade precipitate the need for a comprehensive examination&hellip of current geographic information functions and how these functions can be most effectively structured and performed " according to a NAPA document.

The study the results of which will be released by June is the first comprehensive research on the federal government's surveying mapping and geographic information systems (GIS) since the National Research Council conducted a similar study in 1981. "This is an appropriate time to look at all of the [GIS] activities " said Arnold Donahue project co-director at NAPA.

Four agencies - the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) the U.S. Forest Service the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Ocean Service - requested that an independent group undertake the study mostly because last session's Republican-controlled Congress had proposed large cuts in federal geographic information programs.

In its fiscal 1996 appropriations bill Congress initially proposed divesting the federal government's surveying and mapping activities but later agreed to allow agencies to study the cuts.

The study is a result of that action as well as Congress' overall interest in devolving federal activities to state and local governments said Dan Webb a BLM land surveyor based in Washington D.C.

Webb said the panel made up of nine geospatial experts from the private and public sectors universities associations and think tanks "will probably find some" geographic information programs to outsource or transfer to states.

Jack Dangermond president and chief executive officer of Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. and a member of the panel said he will consider reducing some of the federal government's geographic information roles "if it makes sense."

But he added: "I'm pretty strong on the side of government in collecting and maintaining high-quality geographic data. We always talk about privatizing the collection of data but the long-term stewardship of managing data&hellip is government's role.

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