Up Front with Barbara Quint
The Numbers Racket
By Barbara Quint
In October, Bruce James, the Public Printer and head of the U.S. Government
Printing Office, told a meeting of federal depository librarians that the GPO
Access service does not have a sustainable business model and that GPO needs
to "create a business model that will once again allow us to bring revenue
in the door."
GPO Access is probably the federal government's greatest success on the Web.
As currently constituted, it's a vital source of information and a revolutionary
improvement in the delivery of government information to the American public.
But it's also a model of commitment to the right way to handle that information.
It doesn't skimp on what it offers, including most of its best-known and even
bulkiest titles. Most important, it has a standing and publicly announced policy
that any publication it carriesand they now number in the hundreds of
thousandswill be carried forever. GPO Access is a true archive, a repository
for the ages, a "Web site of record." It has earned its more than 37 million
uses a month.
Further inquiries determined that James' remark, while possibly a trial balloon,
was at least not a trial announcement. According to a respected spokesperson,
GPO executives worried that the rising use of GPO Access to supply electronic
versions of government publications had led to declining revenues from the
GPO sales department. The spokesperson indicated that James wants GPO and the
library and information communities to work together to come up with a feasible
business model that might help the organization recover revenue.
Actually, in a Searcher magazine interview, James said he "wouldn't
be surprised if in 5 years the government is delivering 95 percent of documents
only in digital form." Far be it from me to underestimate librarians (loyal
to my profession as I am), but it does stretch credulity a bit to imagine that
we would be able to come up with a business model that can recover all but
5 percent of the GPO's sales revenues in 5 years' time. At least any model
that would also protect the public's right to know.
GPO arrived at its for-free policy through experience. Originally, it did
try to set up payment mechanisms, both subscription and per-document. However,
a law (PL103-40) required GPO not to charge depository libraries. As one might
have predicted, those libraries started reproducing and redelivering GPO Access
content and building mirror sitesall available for free on the open Web.
In 1995, GPO decided to go with the flow and opened its service to free access.
Since they lack copyright protection, government documents are the most public
of public-domain material. Even if GPO did return to some payment mechanism,
you could envision libraries continuing to redistribute. Library vendors might
even help, perhaps by offering a service attached to their existing ones that
supplied a cheap or free "federal depository" collection.
GPO's problems could soon get bigger. A new arrangement hammered out of a
fight with the Office of Management and Budget should substantially increase
the flow of electronic government documents. All printers working with federal
executive branch agencies must supply GPO with electronic copies of reports
(and at least two print copies for cataloging). No electronic copies, no checks.
With this new enforcement mechanism and a prospective closing of in-house printing
plants, GPO expects a sharp drop in "fugitive" documents and a sharp rise in
government documents available for public access.
So why shouldn't the American public simply enjoy this tremendous increase
in service from the federal government as each computer and Internet connection
turns every user into a federal depository library? Our tax dollars at workfinally!
Well, as Benjamin Disraeli, the famed 19th-century British prime minister,
said, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." The
multi-administration battle between the OMB and GPO over the efficiency and
cost-effectiveness of centralized printing saw statistics hurled like grenades.
Boom! You lose $$$! Bam! We save $$$! Frankly, if GPO ends up
establishing business models based on replacing revenue from the sales department,
the war for public access may already be lost.
If I were Mr. James, I would reconsider even collecting such dangerous
statistics. Instead, I would brandish those 37 million hits a monthnot
one of which caused a single GPO (or GPO contractor's) printing device a single
drop of ink. GPO Access has not only expanded the delivery of federal documents
exponentially, it has also transferred the physical printing (when necessary)
of those documents to the public's own computer printers.
Instead, if I were Mr. James, I'd collect every statistic in existence on
the cost of producing and disseminating information for every federal agency
and add in projected increases. And when anyone attacked my operation, I'd
stand and fight on that statistical barricade and no other.
The bottom line is that the people own the government. The people pay for
the government. The people own the information the government collects and
the documents it produces. The government owes the people what they have paid
for. The Web now reaches into the homes and offices of most Americans. No matter
what statistics anyone throws out, the Web is the bargain of the millennium.
But even if it weren't, it would remain the best way for the government to
do its dutyi.e., to supply citizens with the information they own. All
measurements of success and failure should be made against that macro-statistic.
Barbara Quint is editor of Searcher magazine. Her e-mail address is