Information Today
Volume 19, Issue 8 — September 2002
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'Documents? What Documents?'
Both the GPO and the public's right to know have come under attack
by Barbara Quint

Normally, it is the policy of this column and this writer to take an absolutely objective and always disinterested view of information trends. Well, that's not really true. In fact, it's not true at all—I'm totally biased toward the interests of information consumers. But insofar as a column's topic could be affected by my personal opinions, like a Hebrew National hot dog, I answer to a higher authority.

And—joy to the world!—this month's column will be no different, even though I happen to own the vendor under discussion. Unfortunately, I also own the agency attacking the vendor. You do too, if you send your tax payments to the IRS.

The long-term feud between the executive and legislative branches of the federal government over who gets to print and publish federal government documents has broken out once more. The off-and-on-again battle has persisted through Democratic and Republican administrations for decades now. However, the current push threatens to gut federal document dissemination—and fast.
 

Do It Yourself
As an August 5 NewsBreak announced (http://www.infotoday.com/newsbreaks/nb020805-1.htm), the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has issued a directive ordering federal agencies to make their own printing procurement decisions and "liberate" themselves from the Government Printing Office (GPO) monopoly. If the GPO can do better than the in-house printing or prices that each federal agency can find on its own, then the OMB deigns to allow federal agencies to use the GPO. As for the U.S. Code Title 44 requirement for the bulk of federal documents to go through the centralized GPO system, the OMB cites a Department of Justice opinion that contends that recent Supreme Court rulings make the current micromanagement structure of federal document publication by Congress unconstitutional.

As for bleatings about the loss of public access to a centralized, free, or low-cost delivery system for federal documents through the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) and direct GPO sales to the public ... Well, there the OMB waves its hands and simply encourages the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council to include a recommendation that federal agencies continue to send material to the depository libraries through the Superintendent of Documents. From the status of a statutory requirement, the public's right to know drops into a footnote in an obscure federal regulation—it's not even significant enough to make the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).

In the original memo by OMB director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., the public release of documents only received coverage in the eighth footnote("Departments and agencies shall continue to ensure that all government publications, as defined in 44 U.S.C. Part 19, are made available to the depository library program through the Superintendent of Documents"). Someone must have enlightened Mr. Daniels' dim awareness of the FDLP in the time between issuing that directive in May and his appearance at the Joint Committee on Printing hearings in July. There are 1,300 depository libraries, but most of them operate under selective specifications. This explains how the GPO can satisfy FDLP requirements with only 6 million documents representing some 15,000 titles. As any calculator can tell you, 15,000 times 1,300 is 19.5 million.

God forbid that each federal agency would have to make 1,300 copies of every document, box them up, and ship them off to the Superintendent of Documents! That might eat up a round or two of those savings that the OMB had promised this draconian measure would yield. Instead, at the hearings, Daniels stated: "We have asked the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council (which oversees the government-wide Federal Acquisition Regulation [FAR]) to promulgate a rule requiring printing contractors to submit electronic copies of their documents to the Superintendent of Documents for rapid distribution to the Depository Library Program."
 

Advantages? What Advantages?
Now here's where my objectivity pricked up its ears. Up till now, I could see absolutely no advantage to the OMB move. None! Although neither printing nor budgeting lore falls within my fields of expertise, my taxpayer's instinct tells me that when Public Printer Michael DiMario blurted out, "Buying printing is not like buying paper clips.... Anyone who thinks that getting the best price for printing requires no more than a quick trip to the local copy center is seriously misinformed," he was telling the truth. All the OMB chatter about competitive pricing and breaking a monopoly somehow didn't stand up to the fact that the GPO itself uses some 10,000 to 12,000 printers while bidding out 75 percent of its printing assignments. And if this is going to be such a boon for printers, why do the Printing Industries of America and its 13,000 members oppose the move so strenuously?

However, back to the path of objectivity. I'm not in the business of defending the GPO as an institution. All I care about is the welfare of searchers. And universal electronic delivery of federal documents through the Superintendent of Documents to depository libraries ... hmm ... that does sound yummy. If properly scheduled, the FDLP could probably get the documents as fast or faster than the agencies waiting for printed copies. And, under current GPO policies, the documents would go up on its GPO Access system and stay there forever. Whee!

Maybe, if we could get the still-furious GPO to set up an aggressive monitoring system, it might even chase down some of those fugitive documents, which are guesstimated to be 50 percent of all federal documents produced. (A 1998 Inspector General study of even the benign and pro-dissemination National Institutes of Health, which has an exemption from using the GPO as a printer but not from the FDLP service, found that 78 percent of the publications qualifying for depository distribution never left the NIH.) With a vigorous commitment to the Web delivery of information, the GPO might even start monitoring Web-only documents on federal agency sites and demanding their publication in a system that guarantees permanent archiving and access.

That's the direction in which the GPO was heading in its latest budget request. But if the OMB move goes through, the GPO could lose half its staff and close to two-thirds of its revenue. Under those conditions, it's hard to see any agency setting broad new mission goals and carrying them out.As for counting on the OMB to facilitate or enforce its own provisions, that's very hard to imagine. The GPO, depository libraries, and the public could end up subject to a casual, unenforced memo lost in some federal agency files to remind Printer X and Printer Y to send electronic copies when they get a chance. Any format will do: HTML, XML, Microsoft Word, RTF, Adobe PDF, Quark. Why standardize? It's not an executive branch problem.
 

Printing or Publishing?
The OMB has taken a complete bean-counter attitude to the whole problem—and not the most honest of bean counters at that. Despite its title, the Government Printing Office is a publisher. (Actually a July 1998 bill, if it had passed, would have changed the name to Government Publications Office.) The OMB apparently doesn't recognize the difference between "printing" and "publishing." Admittedly, the GPO does not perform the front-end work of a commercial publisher—such as finding topics, finding authors, supplying editors, etc.—but it does deliver active support at the document production stage.

More importantly, the GPO provides a more elaborate publishing service than any commercial publisher after printing. It supplies centralized indexing, disseminates to networks of libraries, sells documents to individuals, and, in the case of Web-based documents, maintains a relatively unique policy among federal information services of eternal archiving and eternal access. So it costs a few bucks more to get that kind of support. Does it ever occur to the OMB that the single professional most in need of comprehensive, centralized government document dissemination is the federal government employee? Several depository libraries are federal agency libraries that are looking for copies of their own agency material and documents from related agencies.

Most important, the OMB just doesn't seem to take seriously the public's right to know, the public's need to know, and the public's right to expect the government they're paying for to share whatever knowledge it has gathered that might support the enhancement of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This cavalier attitude toward information policymaking threatens to lead, fairly quickly, to a collapse of the flow of federal government information to the public. About the last thing this country needs right now is an upsurge of ignorance. Americans do not need to get dumber about their government or anything else.

And the OMB just shrugs. Honestly! If scientists ever developed a drug to induce Alzheimer's disease in lab rats, the OMB would probably volunteer the American taxpayer as a human subject—as long as the testing would protect the rats.

Speaking of rats, if this does go through and access to federal documents does revert to the primitive, who profits? No one in the long run, but in the short run, it could require intense monitoring to even verify the existence of federal documents. Is it time to budget more money to those expensive CCH and BNA newsletters just to pick up the slack from losses in the Monthly Catalog of United States Government Publications? Whatever route is taken, federal documents continue to fall in the public domain. So maybe some eager firms will just start capturing federal documents, probably prying them out with Freedom of Information Act requests and reissuing them—at a substantial markup, of course, and with no freebies to citizens.

The fee-dom of information! Your tax dollars at work!
 

Barbara Quint is editor in chief of Searcher, a columnist for Information Today, and a longtime online searcher. Her e-mail address is bquint@mindspring.com.

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