Daley plan would close NTIS doors

The Commerce Department plans to close the National Technical Information Service because its core function of providing government information for a fee is no longer needed in the age of the Internet, Commerce Secretary William Daley said last week.

NTIS collects, archives and sells scientific, technical, engineering and related business information produced by or for the government. It is required by law to cover all its expenses. However, NTIS has lost several million dollars over the past few years as it competes with agencies, including Commerce - that now routinely place documents on their own World Wide Web sites for free. NTIS operates under a "fundamentally flawed business premise," Daley determined in a Aug. 10 memo obtained by Federal Computer Week. "After much analysis and consideration of several alternatives, we concluded that closing NTIS is the best course of action. I will be sending legislation to Congress to do so."

Daley next month will send to Congress proposed legislation that would close NTIS and shift its paper, microfiche and digital archives as well as its bibliographic database to the Library of Congress. The public will continue to receive the same information if government agencies post all technical reports to the Internet and send documents electronically to the Library of Congress, according to Commerce. The department proposes that agencies maintain technical reports and business information on their Web sites "for long periods of time" so that the public can search and find them online.

Earlier this summer, Commerce relocated some 43 NTIS employees to other Commerce agencies in an effort to cut costs, but that action only addressed the agency's short-term financial problem, Daley said. Commerce is committed to finding positions within Commerce for the remaining 265 NTIS employees but also will work with the Office of Personnel Management to look for opportunities throughout government, he said.

In a letter sent to Daley last Friday, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) and Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), whose Northern Virginia district is home to numerous IT companies and federal employees, said they are "deeply concerned" about the haphazard way NTIS employees were notified about Commerce's plan to close NTIS.

"We are also extremely concerned by the department's apparent lack of willingness to work with the Congress and NTIS employees to craft a sound restructuring proposal that will fulfill the twin needs of meeting NTIS' mission and treating its employees and their families in a fair and just manner," the letter stated.

Davis and Warner said they were not given a chance to review the department's plans in advance and asked for a commitment from Daley that he will work with them on the process.

An NTIS spokeswomen said she could not comment on the plan. However, she said NTIS is expected to break even, or come close to breaking even, this fiscal year. "That does not match up with the secretary saying he will close us down," the spokeswoman said.

Don Johnson, vice president of business development at SMAC Data Systems Inc. and former NTIS director, said Commerce is overlooking the importance of NTIS' work. For example, NTIS operates an online and physical bookstore that sells international trade and business reports written by outside organizations for the government. NTIS has negotiated distribution deals with each organization that holds copyrights to the publications so that the reports can be sold to the public.

"I think that's a pretty marvelous example of the role NTIS performs," Johnson said. "NTIS acquired documents that were not previously available to the public, and now they are. I think that is a marvelous value add. The reason many organizations were willing to sign with NTIS is because it is a government [agency]." Johnson thinks Congress should appropriate funds for NTIS to continue operation. "Electronic distribution over the Internet has changed the world NTIS lives in," he said. "They need to have a change in their funding model that takes that into account."

Kurt Molholm, administrator of the Defense Technical Information Center, said NTIS is an "important national resource." DTIC sends 15,000 to 18,000 technical, engineering and scientific documents a year to NTIS for dissemination. "NTIS is an important interface between the Defense Department and the public for release of scientific and technical information," he said, adding that DTIC is not funded to disseminate those documents itself.

Still, there are some who think the plan makes sense. The Center for Democracy and Technology praised the plan. NTIS has charged citizens for information that is free on the Internet and that was paid for with taxpayer dollars, CDT said in a statement. CDT found in a recent report that agencies are saving money by providing information through the Internet for free, the organization said.

"CDT is hopeful that this decision marks a trend toward putting publicly available government documents onto the Web for free as a matter of daily operations," the CDT statement said.

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