'Our goal is to eliminate you as an agency'

Sen. Tom Coburn

Sen. Claire McCaskill said NTIS was helping agencies sidestep acquisition rules by using contractors to provide shared services, while Sen. Tom Coburn, pictured above, questioned the agency's need to exist.

A senate panel grilled the director of a little-known Commerce Department agency July 23 on whether it was a redundant repository for government reports and a middleman for agencies seeking to avoid complicated acquisition rules for IT services.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's Financial and Contracting Oversight Subcommittee, said Commerce's National Technical Information Service (NTIS) was using its charter to get around the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) in order to provide IT and other services to government agencies.

NTIS has stored a wide variety of government reports since it was created during the Truman administration. The idea was to keep all the reports produced by the federal government in a central location and make them available for sale.

The Internet has largely beaten that Cold War-era model into dust, with most reports readily available from the agencies that produce them.

The hearing focused on whether there is a need to maintain the clearinghouse of government-funded scientific, technical, engineering and business-related documents and addressed NTIS' current and future financial viability, including its provision of shared services.

During the hearing, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), ranking member of the full committee, addressed a related question: the seeming redundancy of NTIS given that most of the reports it provides for a fee are available for free from other government agencies.

"Our goal is to eliminate you as an agency," Coburn told NTIS Director Bruce Borzino.

Earlier this year, McCaskill and Coburn introduced the Let Me Google That for You Act that would get rid of NTIS and, they said, save as much as $50 million a year. The Government Accountability Office said in a report released for the hearing that NTIS had sold only about 8 percent of its 2.5 million reports between 1995 and 2000 and estimated that NTIS has cost the government an average of $1.3 million annually over the past 11 years.

NTIS offers services such as Web hosting and database management, but McCaskill said it has employed third parties to do the actual work for government agencies. That approach allows federal agencies to get around the FAR's contracting rules, she argued.

In his testimony, Borzino said NTIS provides information services for federal agencies, including distribution and fulfillment, scanning and digitization, e-training and knowledge management, as well as Web services and cloud computing.

A perplexed McCaskill asked how much the agency relied on private contractors to fulfill some its services. The General Services Administration "offers most of the services you offer....We can't find any IT services that GSA doesn't offer."

Borzino responded that GSA "only provides the contract vehicle. We provide a partnership, a joint service partnership to provide solutions." McCaskill maintained that NTIS' solution was more expensive.

"We're not skirting FAR rules," Borzino said in response to McCaskill's questioning. "Maybe we have a new model you might want to consider."

"No one is subscribing evil motives here," McCaskill said. "This is about redundancy."

Later in the hearing, she commended the agency for its approach to funding. "You all have been creative in getting funding. To do that, you have come up with public/private partnerships that are facilitating federal contracts."

She asked NTIS to provide a list of services that federal agencies can get nowhere else. "I think that's your only shot at holding onto this agency long-term," she said.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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Reader comments

Sun, Aug 10, 2014

It's simple Claire and Tom, NO PRIVATE ENTITY HAS TO DEAL WITH ALL THE GOOFY RULES AS GOVERNEMENT AGENCIES DO TO BUY ANYTHING. Instead of whining about people finding ways to get things done, why not try to buy a widget yourself. Not as a member of congress, but as the average Joe Government employee. My God, you folks always want to compare us to the private sector, well compare more than just the results! One has to wonder how hard it is for the CIO of a fortune 500 company to buy a widget (PC, server, router, switch, even a PIZZA)? I'm sure they don't have to deal with the huge levels of FAR red tape we do. They may have to get three quotes, but I know they DON'T have to deal with the rest of the garbage your group makes us deal with. Right or wrong, YOU folks make everybody's job nearly impossible! So stop comparing apples to tires - the latter isn't even a fruit!

Sun, Aug 3, 2014 Keren Cummins Darnestown, MD

I worked at NTIS through the 90s. It was a challenging time, as NTIS went from being the only public source for much of the government's scientific and technical information, to one that was competing with many public free sources, including the labs and agencies that were conducting the work. It is the nature of scientific research that it is impossible to predict what work is going to have value in the future. Many times, obscure avenues of research conducted in the 50s, 60s, or 70s, and long-forgotten, turned out to have great resonance and import for a new line of inquiry. NTIS made it easy for researchers to be certain that they were aware of, and leveraging, any tax-payer funded efforts that had gone before, and that they were not wasting precious research dollars repeating work that had already been done or pursing avenues that were already known to be dead ends. The free posting on the Internet of taxpayer-funded research findings is, overall, a tremendously positive development for science. It also took a huge bite out of NTIS' business model, and it became impossible for NTIS to sustain itself from the sale of these reports as it once had. However, the agencies posting their exciting and interesting current research online were not under an obligation to post *all* their work, or to make it readily searchable (i.e., providing meaningful abstracts), nor were they obligated to make sure that their research was online for more than a year or two. What we observed at NTIS was that source agencies posted their most interesting and exciting work, but failed to post or quickly took down reports dealing with less engaging lines of research. (Hosting information on the internet, after all, is not actually “free.”) Absent NTIS’ research collection and bibliographic analysis, those “less interesting” research results would have been effectively lost – lost to the taxpayers who paid for it; lost to future researchers who might someday find it to be of great value. So there is a critical public good that NTIS provided, although it is smaller than it was before information became “free.” I’ve been gone from NTIS a long time. But if GAO’s assertion is correct, that NTIS operations – maintaining and offering access to a comprehensive and permanent collection of federally funded research – have only cost the taxpayers $1.3M per year for the last ten years, NTIS just might be one of the most efficient federal programs in history. Ask DOE, DoD, NSF and others if they are prepared to make the last sixty years of research available and searchable in perpetuity for that amount.

Sat, Jul 26, 2014 Owen Ambur Silver Spring, MD

With reference to Senator McCaskill's question about "services that federal agencies can get nowhere else," NTIS may not be the appropriate agency to provide such services but the purposes for which the CIO Council chartered the ET.gov site and process remain unfulfilled, at least in the sense of achieving a degree of maturity above CMM Level 1. Those purposes are outlined at http://ambur.net/et/etLifeCycle.htm and the history of the site and process is detailed at http://ambur.net/et/ETGovHistory.htm BTW, if NTIS has a strategic plan, it is not evident on their website. However, their about statement is now available in StratML format at http://xml.fido.gov/stratml/drybridge/index.htm#NTIS Consistent with the thrust of section 10 of the GPRA Modernization Act (GPRAMA), if it hopes to remain in business, NTIS should report its performance indicators on the Web in an open, standard, machine-readable format like StratML.

Thu, Jul 24, 2014

A prior NTIS Director instituted a publicly announced policy of NTIS providing free linking from the NTIS Website to other U.S. Government agency websites to allow free downloading of individual technical reports whenever the individual technical reports were available for free download from another agency. This policy was implemented for the public good and announced and promoted by NTIS. A question that has not been asked is which NTIS Director and senior Commerce Department official(s) approved of changing this policy? Also, did NTIS and Commerce Department senior officials inform the Congress and the GAO about this prior policy?

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