Don’t worry if you have never heard of the National Technical Information Service. You can look it up online.
That’s a big part of the point of Senate Bill 1636, the Just Google It Act. It would eliminate that obscure office within the U.S. Commerce Department.
The office’s mandate, as of its 1950 creation: serve as the main repository for government-funded technical, scientific and business reports.
The agency estimates it holds more than 3 million documents across some 350 topics. But its own website encourages users to check with other government agencies and conduct an Internet search before requesting documents.
Why? The answer is in the numbers. By comparison, the first Google index of the Internet in 1998 had 26 million pages. By 2000, there were 1 billion pages.
And Google isn’t charging money for many of the same documents that the NTIS is charging taxpayers to catalog and print.
"Georgians are frustrated by the federal government because it is plagued by wasteful spending and redundancy, and the National Technical Information Service is a perfect example of both," U.S. Sen. David Perdue, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said in a press release.
So, is the government spending an estimated $170 million a year of taxpayer money to make documents publicly available when a search engine does it for free? We decided to check.
Take an introductory political science course (and hopefully a high school civics class) and you learn government’s role in providing services.
Part of the theory around all that is government’s role in providing what may have social value but not necessarily earn a profit. Spreading the costs among all citizens in the form of taxes is how government provides things such as a military on the national level and schools on the local level.
Government watchdogs, though, have for years questioned spending on services where private-sector competition could lower taxes on everyone. Toll roads, anyone?
But not everything that seems wasteful turns out to have no value. Consider the National Helium Reserve.
The federal government set it up in 1925 to act as a strategic supply for dirigibles back when the U.S. worried about German airships in battle.
It served as a punch line through the decades, including during a 2013 congressional vote to extend the program.
But the jokes belied why it still exists. Helium became an important coolant during the Space Race and, later, a key way to keep computers and other technology contaminant-free, all during a time when the private sector was unable to meet demand.
So, could the National Technical Information Service be a similar program that sounds ridiculous but actually is not?
The Government Accountability Office looked at that very question in 2012. After examining the agency’s organization, function, staffing levels, demand for reports and work, the GAO found that 74 percent of the NTIS reports between 1990 and 2011 were "readily available" elsewhere, usually from the originating agency’s website.
And 95 percent of that 74 percent of reports were free, the GAO estimated, while the NTIS lost an average of $1 million a year for the past decade.
"In looking across the years, at one point they were self-sustaining as a repository," said Valerie C. Melvin, director of the GAO’s Information Management and Technology Resources Issues Office.
"But we found it was not able to sustain itself with the demand and sale of reports in recent years and suggested Congress look at the viability of its statutory function," she said.
Melvin testified to those findings about a dated business model before the U.S, Senate in 2014.
NTIS Director Bruce Borzino countered in his own testimony that his office is the one posting many of those reports to the Web. And many other federal departments do not have the technical expertise to maintain the permanent access of their information.
A spokeswoman told PolitiFact Georgia that the office also "tags" much of the agencies’ documents – effectively making them available for Google and other search engines to find them. Some 800,000 documents also are available for free that way, spokeswoman Gail Porter said.
"As NTIS evolves, its service portfolio will continue to grow by supporting the entire data delivery pipeline for trusted data networks with stringent privacy and security with a focus on increasing access to data, combining data in new ways and delivering better service," Porter said.
It will be up to Congress to take the information from the NTIS and GAO and decide what’s next.
Last spring Sens. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, and Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, introduced the Let Me Google That for You bill that would have gutted the NTIS but not killed it outright.
That effort cleared the Senate but stalled in the House, opening the door for the bill that Perdue is now co-sponsoring.
Perdue’s spokeswoman said Georgia’s freshman senator felt the new bill acknowledges that many government agencies already put their reports online – showing why NTIS is redundant.
The bill also would give the Commerce Department a year to phase out the office, so that any "critical functions" can be shifted to another division or agency as needed.
"It’s outlived its original intent, especially now that every government agency has a website that is, or should be, more accessible and searchable for public records," Perdue spokeswoman Megan Whittemore said.
Government watchdogs have kept an eye on the debate but rarely lobbied one way or the other.
The GAO report, after all, shows that the NTIS often has the older reports that are harder to find online. And it shows value in the expertise to make sure documents are posted online for search engines to find.
But Steve Ellis, the vice president of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense, said Congress might be better served making it clear that every government department must start doing that work itself.
"The question isn’t about NTIS, but why there are still agencies not putting up their own documents," Ellis said. "Just like how we all went from getting a paycheck to using Direct Deposit, the government has to evolve with the times."
U.S. Sen. David Perdue said a small government office is spending taxpayer money to print and sell government reports that are available online for free.
A 2012 GAO report backs up some of that claim, finding that three-quarters of the National Technical Information Service’s reports were available online.
That number reflects a growing trend of government agencies posting their own scientific and technical reports to the Web, where anyone can search and print them out for free.
But the claim ignores the fact that the NTIS is responsible for some of the posting and tagging that make those reports easy to find on Google.
Perdue’s statement hits on a popular topic, attacking what appears to be government waste. He’s accurate but ignores some information that adds nuance to the debate.
We rate Perdue’s claim Mostly True.