Government cost recovery gone awry: PACER and NTIS

Aug 27 2014 Published by under information policy, Information Science

(reiterating these are just my personal opinion and do not reflect anything from my place of work - if you know what that is - or anything else)

For many years, the US federal government has tried to cut costs by outsourcing anything that isn't inherently governmental, making sure that government doesn't compete with industry, and requiring cost recovery for government agencies that provide services to other agencies (see A-76 ).

Old examples that might have changed: GPO had to do all printing of history books for military historians, but the quality was ok, the distribution was crap, and the DoD history organizations and readers had to pay a lot of money. So what they did when I worked there was to give the book to a university press that would do a decent job with it. The books were not copyrightable anyway because they were work for hire by a government employee. Everyone was happy. Another old example was that Navy was required to send all records to NARA. But then Navy all the sudden had to pay NARA to keep the documents (I think this has changed - my example is from late 1990s). This was things like deck logs. Hugely important documents.

NTIS has long been caught up in this. Agencies producing technical reports are required by law to send them to NTIS (if they are unlimited distribution). NTIS is required to recover the cost of their administration and archiving by selling the documents. This is hard because first, agencies are not thorough in sending stuff to NTIS (often because their central repository isn't even getting copies - even though required by regulations, instructions, etc.) and second, agencies make these documents available for free from their own sites.  NTIS also has picked up a few bucks here and there doing web and database consulting and licensing their abstracting and indexing database to vendors who resell to libraries. Why pay for it from a third-party vendor? Cross search with your favorite engineering database. Better search tools.

PACER is also caught up in this. There's actually a law that says US Courts has to recover the cost of running the system by charging for access or for documents. They do not want to but there is a law that they must obey.  This is information that really should be freely available and easily accessible. A famous activist tried to download the whole thing and make available, but he was stopped.

The results of forcing these agencies - GPO, NTIS, US Courts - to recover their costs are great and they directly work against the open government we need and deserve. It causes the agencies to cut corners and not have the systems they need. It causes customer agencies and citizens alike to distrust and dislike them.

Now, US Courts has removed large collections of historical documents from PACER because of an IT upgrade. Read the Washington Post article. Various people in Congress are trying to shut NTIS down, again. GPO seems to be ok, for now - lots of cool neat things from them.

Libraries  - like mine - have been burdened by cost recovery, too, and it often signals the beginning of the end. Superficially, makes sense to show how much something is valued and by whom. In practice, you need a lot more accounting systems and controls over the professional workers that prevent them from doing their job. These services are directly in support of strategic requirements (open government and accountability) but are infrastructure. People are blind to infrastructure until it's no longer there.  NTIS, PACER, GPO and others need to stop with this cost recovery business (meaning Congress has to pass a law that removes that requirement) and be funded as infrastructure. Outsource to get needed skills you can't hire in government, but be smart about it.

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