No compelling reason - yet - to close NTIS
- By Timothy Sprehe
- Oct 17, 1999
Just weeks ago, we all thought we were bidding farewell to the National Technical Information Service. NTIS was known to be in trouble financially, and the Commerce Department secretary had said he would send Congress legislation to close down the agency. Now it appears everyone may have been too hasty in delivering eulogies.
Commerce's handling of the issue has been ham-handed. Having announced that the department would give NTIS' information holdings to the Library of Congress, deputy secretary of Commerce Robert Mallett then stated in a congressional hearing that the department had not consulted with the library in advance. Cavalierly asserting that NTIS was following an obsolete business model because agencies could now post their publications on the Internet, Commerce failed to note the healthy market for print publications. Mallett also said that Commerce had not talked to the NTIS user community either.
If you begin to suspect Commerce has not done its homework on closing NTIS, you're dead right.
Commerce is going it alone on this issue. The White House and the Office of Management and Budget have been silent about the future of NTIS. Members of Congress are voicing outrage or genuine concern for NTIS and its employees. The only vocal supporter of the closure is the Government Printing Office, which salivates over the prospect of picking at the NTIS carcass.
Commerce has floated a draft bill to abolish NTIS. Even if the bill is introduced, it may go nowhere, in part because it is so poorly thought out. These days, Congress does not look with favor on proposals for employee buy-outs, which is what the department is asking for.
Other agencies are asking the basic questions Commerce should have addressed in the first place. LOC has asserted that the government must examine which of NTIS' functions are sufficiently effective and desirable to merit continued federal support. The question is, How and where can the needed functions best be sustained to guarantee the uninterrupted acquisition and preservation of scientific and technical information?
NTIS occupies a stable position among scientific and technical agencies, operating as a service bureau or fulfillment house for a wide range of government information programs. The effects of axing NTIS would ripple through many other agencies with deleterious consequences. The financial liability removed from Commerce could cause far greater liabilities for other agencies.
The tragedy would be if the Commerce declaration became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Despite the fact that statute requires agencies to send their scientific and technical publications to NTIS for clearinghouse and distribution purposes, many fail to do so now. Agencies that do use NTIS are making contingency plans. With the handwriting on the wall, even more agencies may look to other information dissemination channels.
On the other hand, it is never easy to eliminate a government agency. Jobs are at stake, and people also begin to discover that the agency performs valuable functions. That is happening right now with NTIS.
Will Commerce succeed in closing NTIS? I doubt it. For the near term, Congress probably will have to appropriate several million dollars to support NTIS. For the long term, Congress should heed the advice of the library community: NTIS should not be closed, nor its services transferred elsewhere, until there is a thorough assessment of NTIS services, of alternatives for providing the services and of the requirement that the agency be self-supporting.
Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates, Washington, D.C. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.