An entrepreneurial agency

When an organization is described as "entrepreneurial," it's usually meant as a compliment. But some people might use the term with a different connotation when talking about the National Technical Information Service.

NTIS, part of the Commerce Department, was created in 1970 to serve as an information clearinghouse for agencies by collecting, archiving and selling scientific, technical and business documents.

In recent years, though, the agency has been fighting for survival, with various proposals made to reorganize it or shut it down. The problem is the Internet, which makes it easy for agencies to disseminate information without a middleman.

But NTIS, which is supposed to be financially self-supporting, has done what many businesses would do in its place: It set up shop in the new market, offering such services as Web hosting, accessibility support and e-commerce support. Most recently, the agency has decided to work with an industry partner to develop a hosted e-learning service for agencies that have high security requirements.

NTIS' creative initiatives, though, raise a fundamental question: Should an agency be entrepreneurial? That is, should the government maintain a self- supporting agency that must develop new lines of business to stay in business?

It's a safe bet that many people who supported closing the agency in 2000, for example, would do so now. Yet creativity should not be brushed aside so quickly.

A secure e-learning service, for example, could be a boon for agencies that have hesitated to adopt online training applications because of legitimate security concerns. It's a classic argument: The government could save money by having a central agency partner with a company to offer a service, rather than forcing agencies to award individual contracts.

Ultimately, of course, NTIS, like any business, must succeed or fail on the merits of its ideas. As long as NTIS continues to provide legitimate services to federal agencies, it's in the government's best interests to foster this entrepreneurial spirit.

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