'Our goal is to eliminate you as an agency'

Senators grill a little-known Commerce Department agency on whether it's a redundant repository for reports and a middleman for agencies seeking to avoid complicated acquisition rules.

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.

NEXT STORY: GAO: Q&A with Gene Dodaro

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