NCLIS' wasted motions

The National Commission on Libraries and Information Science has squandered an opportunity to effect a major impact on federal information policy.

The National Commission on Libraries and Information Science has squandered an opportunity to effect a major impact on federal information policy. Initially asked by Congress to study the Commerce Department's hasty decision to eliminate the National Technical Information Service, NCLIS grew the undertaking into a comprehensive assessment of how public information is disseminated.

Unfortunately, the report issued by NCLIS to Congress and the White House January 26 goes wildly off the rails, and the future of NTIS becomes a minor consideration, lost in a much grander and wholly naive scheme. NCLIS has done NTIS no favors.

In a key recommendation, NCLIS urges the creation of a new agency, the Public Information Resources Administration (PIRA), "to plan for and implement the treatment of public information resources as a strategic national asset."

What a triumph of 1960s political ideology. Got a problem? Create a new agency. We supposedly left that kind of thinking behind decades ago when we realized that creating new government agencies only creates new problems rather than solving old ones.

NCLIS' report never says how PIRA would overcome the deficiencies of existing government programs that deal in information dissemination because the report does not state how PIRA relates to the existing power structure in the executive branch of government. PIRA is apparently some kind of free-floating coordinating authority that bears no relation to the powers of the Office of Management and Budget and the CIO Council, let alone to budget processes.

To arrive at its screwy conclusions, NCLIS assembled four panels and a dozen experts, had them study the issues extensively and then ignored their findings while writing the report in secret. None of the panels recommended anything like PIRA, and all of them objected to its sudden appearance in the final report.

I can testify to this because I participated in two of the panels and spoke at length with many of the interested parties inside and outside of government. NCLIS devised a report whose recommendations were not only dead on arrival, but whose manner of back-room preparation systematically alienated most NCLIS supporters.

If PIRA ever came into existence, it would probably be a tiny agency, chronically underfunded and understaffed, and completely removed from the policy decisions that affect information dissemination programs.

It would seek to coordinate without clout and would be ignored with impunity while agencies continued to go their own ways. At best, it would provide sinecures for a few librarians to prance about and spout platitudes.

In other words, PIRA would be another NCLIS. We don't need PIRA, and as a reading of the report makes abundantly clear, we don't need NCLIS either. The Bush administration apparently agrees because the president's recent 2002 budget has zeroed out NCLIS.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jtsprehe@ jtsprehe.com.

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