Commerce plans reorganization of NTIS

The Commerce Department plans to submit to Congress in the next six weeks a blueprint that would reorganize the agency's National Technical Information Service as it struggles to survive in the era of the Internet.

NTIS collects, archives and sells scientific, technical, engineering and related business information produced by or for the government. Unlike other agencies that distribute federal documents, such as the Government Printing Office, NTIS is required by law to cover all its expenses.

But NTIS has lost several million dollars over the past few years as it competes with agencies that now routinely place documents on their own World Wide Web sites for free before submitting them to NTIS for archiving and sale. In addition, the cost of archiving the documents, many of which may never be sold to the public, is expensive.

The reorganization plan, which, according to sources, is under high-level review within Commerce, is expected to address NTIS' troubled finances.

Commerce has discussed various options internally, including closing down NTIS, relocating some NTIS employees to other parts of Commerce in an effort to cut costs and moving NTIS to another department, sources said. However, according to sources, Commerce most likely will ask Congress for appropriated funds to cover the costs of collecting and archiving the data. This option would redefine NTIS' role and require a change in its mission.

The White House has asked for about $2 million for NTIS in its fiscal 2000 budget. The reorganization plan would provide details on how NTIS would spend the money.

"Anything we do regarding NTIS we will have to have congressional approval," said Roger Baker, chief information officer at Commerce. "We're tied up without Hill approval."

NTIS officials declined to comment.

Previous efforts by NTIS to reinvent itself and meet its costs have come under fire. Earlier this month, NTIS was criticized for its plan to charge a monthly subscription for a new search engine that enables users to search through millions of federal documents online. But the department has put on hold plans to charge for searches in the wake of media reports quoting sources questioning whether a federal agency should be able to charge for access to public documents that have been funded by taxpayers.

Some say it is impossible for NTIS to be self-sustaining under its current structure. "NTIS' role as a clearinghouse served the nation well, but it's not financially viable," said Ken Allen, chairman of the NTIS advisory board and executive president and chief executive officer of the National Newspaper Association. "It needs to be supported by appropriations to be continued. NTIS can play an important role in enhancing public access to information."

Creating a new role for NTIS will not be easy, said Don Johnson, former NTIS director and now vice president for business development at SMAC Data Systems Inc. "It will require creativity to find the mix of products to generate the revenue," he said. Still, NTIS serves an important public role, he added.

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