‘Let Me Google That for You’—Now a Congressional Bill

Some think the government is wasting money on an agency that search engines have made obsolete. One bill would eliminate it altogether.

Sen. Tom Coburn has a plan for an agency he says is wasting taxpayer dollars: let Google replace it.
National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
July 23, 2014, 12:25 p.m.

A little-known branch of the Com­merce De­part­ment faces elim­in­a­tion, thanks to ad­vances in tech­no­logy and a snarkily named bill from Sens. Tom Coburn and Claire Mc­Caskill.

The Na­tion­al Tech­nic­al In­form­a­tion Ser­vice com­piles fed­er­al re­ports, serving as a clear­ing­house for the gov­ern­ment’s sci­entif­ic, tech­nic­al, and busi­ness doc­u­ments. The NTIS then sells cop­ies of the doc­u­ments to oth­er agen­cies and the pub­lic upon re­quest. It’s done so since 1950.

But Coburn and Mc­Caskill say it’s hard to jus­ti­fy 150 em­ploy­ees and $66 mil­lion in tax­pay­er dol­lars when al­most all of those doc­u­ments are now avail­able on­line for free.

Enter the Let Me Google That for You Act.

“Our goal is to elim­in­ate you as an agency,” the fam­ously grumpy Coburn told NTIS Dir­ect­or Bruce Borzino at a Wed­nes­day hear­ing. Pulling no punches, Coburn sug­ges­ted that any NTIS doc­u­ments not already avail­able to the pub­lic be put “in a small closet in the De­part­ment of Com­merce.”

Borzino countered that his agency still serves an im­port­ant pur­pose. “As the amount of data gen­er­ated by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment grows, so does the chal­lenge of en­sur­ing its con­tin­ued ac­cess and per­man­ent avail­ab­il­ity,” he test­i­fied. “This is a func­tion unique to NTIS.”

He noted in­stances in which NTIS had helped oth­er agen­cies stock­pile in­form­a­tion to help with spe­cif­ic pro­jects, and he em­phas­ized its role in elec­tron­ic­ally stor­ing doc­u­ments some agen­cies are un­able to host on their own web­sites. He also noted the NTIS ex­pects to bring in $88 mil­lion in rev­en­ue from oth­er gov­ern­ment agen­cies this year.

To Coburn and Mc­Caskill, though, that’s more wasted money. In ad­di­tion to the costs of staff­ing NTIS, tax­pay­ers then get charged again when oth­er agen­cies pay for its in­form­a­tion. And that’s not the only re­dund­ancy the sen­at­ors see.

“We can’t find any IT ser­vices you of­fer that [the Gen­er­al Ser­vices Ad­min­is­tra­tion] doesn’t of­fer,” Mc­Caskill said. “You’re more ex­pens­ive than GSA.”

“No, we’re not,” said Borzino.

“Yes,” Mc­Caskill replied, “you are.”

She con­tin­ued: “This is not per­son­al. This is about du­plic­a­tion. This is about char­ging tax­pay­ers for something that they can get for free.”

Borzino main­tained that his agency still has value. “We’re try­ing to provide a ser­vice with­in our cap­ab­il­it­ies,” he said. “We’re do­ing a good job.”

Mean­while, the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice has asked NTIS to stop selling its re­ports, as that agency posts them on its own site for free.

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