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Magazines > Information Today > April 2003
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Information Today
Vol. 20 No. 4 — April 2003
NFAIS 2003 Annual Conference
A Tale of Three Ties
By Dick Kaser

Government officials are not generally known for their fashion statements. Then of course, neither am I. But when Kurt Molholm, NFAIS's Miles Conrad Lecturer for 2003, met up with me at the NFAIS Annual Conference's opening reception, even I thought the Mickey Mouse tie he was wearing was a bit much. I razzed him about it.

No, no, he said. There was a method to his madness. He would change his tie every day of the conference, and each tie had a meaning. Could I guess why he had shown up at the reception in this first (outlandish) one?

I studied the large Mickey Mouse characters dancing on his silk tie for a second and took a guess. The Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act?

"Well, that, of course," he said. "The terrible extension of[copyright for works scheduled to go into the public domain, including Disney characters] that is no longer needed in terms of intellectual property protection. But really as a reminder that order does not exist."

Now, I've known Kurt for a long time. And don't be fooled by the smile. He's been around the military for years, and he can quickly turn stern. He's a complex guy. But I never would have taken him for an existentialist.

When we met the next day for this interview, Kurt was sporting an illuminated manuscript tie that, he told me, was to remind him of the world before Gutenberg.

And after warming up by giving me a preview of his Miles Conrad Lecture—the database producers' version of a lifetime achievement award—he told me lots of other things as well, in a kind of openness I've rarely experienced with a government official (at least not one who isn't speaking "on condition of anonymity").

On Government Competition with the Private Sector

"Industry's bottom line is profit," said Molholm. "Government's bottom line is equity. And we see that in such things as the recent issue with PubScience."[Author's Note: In the case of PubScience, the Department ofEnergy (DOE) was challenged by private-sector organizations for unfairly competing with them in the distribution of sci/tech information. PubScience subsequently terminated operations.]

"Well, first of all, government activities have to support their communities—for example, NASA; for example, DOE; for example, the Department of Defense. The government's function is to provide services, not products. Industry, on the other hand, provides a lot of products and some services, so it's hard.

"But again, PubScience is an example where—whether I agree with their approach or not—they were trying to serve a growing community for education.And suddenly, members of industry come out and say, 'You're competing with us. We weren't in that business (we sure wished we had been), but now that we're in it, get out of it.'And I'm not talking aboutthe goodness or badness of PubScience, but I am certainly saying that that's an example of a department that I don't really think went out to compete, but was trying to serve its constituents."

On 'Free' Government Information

"Ultimately, we have to keep the confidence of the citizen. You don't do that by saying, 'We have the information you want, but you need to go buy it from such-and-such a place.' Because then they say: 'Why should we? We already paid for it.'

"Now I have some philosophical belief that just because you paid for [government] information doesn't mean you get everything. Because you paid for all the paper and the pencils, you don't tell me that at the beginning of the school year you ought to be able to go into your local government and say, 'Give me the paper and the pencils.'

"That's why I say we really are chartered to do services, not produce things. But if people don't have any confidence, then you're not serving. Equity is our driver, not profit. And there's where we have the fundamental problem."

On the Future of Government 'Printing'

Molholm said: "We have to recognize the environment's changed. It doesn't do any good to tie the printing process together with the access process. As a government manager, I would prefer to have as much flexibility as I like to find the least expensive way to get my printing done.

"I still have a social obligation to find a way to notify [people that information is available]. So GPO has access mechanisms ... and GILS, the Government Information Locator Service, could be the way of notifying. There ought to be a mechanism to put a record into a government database and say, 'OK, here's where you go to get this information, because it's not going to be by using the same distribution channels that we had in the past.'

"The new public printer said at a meeting the other day that he wants to move GPO out of the 19th-century ink and paper publishing business into the 21st century. He's looking for new members to the Depository Library Council. He wants people who look 50 years in advance.And that's a tremendous change. He says that 60 percent of the stuff they get in now is all digital anyway. So I can see the beginning of a cultural change in GPO."

On the Future of NTIS

"Now, NTIS [National Technical Information Service] is an interesting problem," said Molholm. "I like to separate privatization from contracting out. Privatization says that a private organization, using their own funding, does a function. It means they take the risk. Contracting out says there's no risk necessary unless you undercut your cost. The government has the risk. They're just paying you to do it as an alternative to doing it in-house.

"That's really an important distinction when we talk about the early privatization attempts of NTIS. They all failed because the expense of getting the information in, organizing it, and keeping it whether it had any economic value of any great amount or not. But keeping it in perpetuity was not something that the industry wanted to do. They just wanted the opportunity to make a profit, which is fine.

"But when Congress says NTIS has to be self-supporting, well, how can they be self-supporting if you take everything away that they had any chance of getting a revenue stream from? I can guarantee that NTIS certainly can't survive without getting an appropriation to do the baseline work. Or else they will have to go out and sell products.

"One of the disadvantages NTIS has in terms of trying to do things like a private business is it can't go out and rent money. So, in fact, it has to compete with an arm or two tied behind its back.

"That's one of two big paradoxes I see as a government organization. First, more and more legislation is saying, 'We can't afford to fund you, so find ways of getting revenue yourself.'And now industry says, 'You're encroaching on my area.'The second thing is, they say, 'Conduct yourself like a business, but you don't have the same business tools.'[This] gets back to that same thing I've said before: equity versus profit. Government organizations are not in business to make profit. They are there to serve their constituencies, [which are] as much overseas as here."

On Unclassified, but Sensitive Information

Molholm said: "Government organizations are here to do services, provide for the common defense, etc., which means they have a lot of information that really can't be available to everybody.As a matter of fact, the Freedom of Information Act has nine exemptions—maybe a 10th exemption under the Homeland Security Act, so nine or 10 exemptions. Each of those could be called 'unclassified but sensitive.'It's the same thing as protecting intellectual property. You need to be able to control it.

"You have to have granularity in unclassified information. Not everything should be publicly available.

"I was talking to the Emergency Response Teams in Montgomery County (Md.). They have contingency plans that they could very well share with restricted audiences, like the Fairfax County Emergency Preparedness folks, but they certainly don't want to have those out in the general Web. Because it doesn't take very many terrorists to screw up everything, knowing where your primary arteries and all your other stuff is."

On Scientific Openness, National Security

"Now when you talk about the whole area ofbioterrorism, I understand the scientific process and the need for it," said Molholm. "I also know that the AAAS came out with a statement that said it should be self-policing [by scientists]. I have no idea what would be dangerous and not dangerous. But I do think people should think about how open some of the things are. If you created through adjustments of DNA powerful things in the sense of good, but [those things] can still be bad and it doesn't take too much to do a conversion, you've got a real problem."

I could not help interjecting a question at this point: Do you think the scientific community can police itself?

Molholm said: "No, but I think they could lay out some general guidelines. There's gotta be a lot of common sense to this.

"On [Jan. 17, 2002], The New York Times ran an article that said you could get germ warfare manuals from DTIC. There was an immediate reaction. It was within 3 or 4 days that NTIS and DTIC were talking with members of the National Security Council. We immediately pulled some things that at least looked like they could have been threats.

"Out of our 2 million documents, we pulled 6,600, with the thoughts that these documents would now go to the scientists themselves or the offices who produced them to say: 'Release this one. This one we should hold tighter.'Some of the things in these articles were 40 or 50 years old. They had been out in the public domain for a long time. So here's one of the common sense things. Can you really pull them back and say, 'Forget everything you've read?'

"On the other hand, we also said if we initially found 6,600, we want to give further examination, and we put 6,500 back in. Now we've already told people, 'Here's the hundred you better get.'So you have a real problem of helping anybody who really wants to do harm find that information.

"The real point is, it wasn't the intermediary organization [DTIC] who was going to make the final determination. All we were going to do is say, 'Based on some criteria that you [scientists] have helped us set, here's some things you want to look at.'And they did. But you have to use common sense. And part of the common sense is in deciding if the value of that scientific research is greater than the risk."

I said that I'd heard several people say that recently, but I think it's a tough question to answer.

Molholm continued: "Oh, it definitely is. And it's a matter of opinion. And those who have the [most qualified] opinions are really a very limited number of people."

On Changing the Status Quo

"You have to brood creatively about the future and take the risk of doing something," said Molholm. "And I've seen that throughout my career, but never like it is now. Because there are so many variables that if you just wait, if you're going to wait, you're never going to do anything. There's got tobe an area of risk-taking that I haven't seen in the past.

"As a government organization and a government manager, you take a risk too. People don't recognize that. But I really do think there's a government entrepreneurship. If you're just going to want to continue to preserve the status quo, you've got a problem.

"It may sound strange for a government bureaucrat like me to say, but my job has always been to attack the status quo. If the status quo is right, it's going to remain. But if the status quo is wrong and you don't attack it, it's going to remain also. And that's not good. I see so many changes are possible now. You gotta do it."

And What About That Last Tie?

For his Miles Conrad Lecture the following day, Kurt confided at the end of our interview that he would wear a tie featuring a stack of leather-bound books turned on its side.As he held it up for me to see, he said, "Whatever we do, digital won't be as interesting as these books."

What can I say? He may not be a fashion plate, but Kurt's a complex guy.

 


Dick Kaser is Information Today, Inc.'s vice president of content. His e-mail address is kaser@infotoday.com.
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