NTIS tries to refocus on data

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Despite repeated efforts by Congress and others, the National Technical Information Service just won't go away.

In a Senate hearing a year ago, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) told NTIS Director Bruce Borzino that "our goal is to eliminate you as an agency."

Fast-forward to 2015: Coburn is retired, and NTIS is looking to refocus its outmoded mission of collecting and disseminating scientific, engineering and technical research to government agencies and the public. The new plan is for NTIS to become a hub of the government's Open Data policy, connecting public and private sector data initiatives, working with the private sector to imagine new products that could be based around government data, and support the delivery of data to end users.

NTIS collects fees for its services. This model may have worked fine when the agency was established under the Truman administration as the Office of the Publication Board. However, the advent of online publishing has put a bit of a dent in the ability of NTIS to collect revenue. The Government Accountability Office estimates that "74 percent of the reports added to NTIS’s collection from fiscal year 1990 through 2011 were available elsewhere, and 95 percent of these were available for free."

Currently the NTIS has about 145 full-time government employees, per its fiscal 2016 budget request. Lately, NTIS revenues have come from supplying other agencies with services rather than technical information. Those services include web hosting and cloud computing, online training support, distribution of printed materials published by other agencies, digitization and scanning of documents and microforms, and billing and collection services. The agency expects to obligate $122 million in 2016.

"The decline that we noted in revenue for its products called into question whether NTIS's basic statutory function as a self-financing repository and disseminator of scientific and technical information was still viable. This was further illustrated by the fact that the services that were financially sustaining the agency were less directly related to this function," the GAO noted in 2012.

Coburn wasn't the first to try to shutter the NTIS. In August 1999, Commerce Secretary William M. Daley announced plans to close NTIS. "This was a tough decision to make, but sound management dictates that we cut our losses and recognize the technologically advanced environment we live in,' Daley said in a press release.

This June, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker announced a new direction for NTIS, with a focus on data. In an announcement, the agency touted recent work helping to rapidly deliver the citizenship website, as well as releasing controlled-access datasets for government and contractor use.

To deliver on this revised mission, NTIS is seeking a member of the senior executive service to become deputy director. A job ad posted July 14 on LinkedIn puts the salary range at $121,956 to $183,300. The job requires experience leading data and information services programs, managing public-private partnerships, and an expert knowledge of the technology that is fueling the data revolution.

Job candidates should be advised, however, that despite a new focus, there are still knives out on Capitol Hill for the NTIS. A bill introduced in March by Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) would repeal the 1988 legislation reauthorizing the agency, and direct the Department of Commerce to maintain an online repository of government technical reports for public use.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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