Federal Data Go Private

Vendors repackage public information - at a price that limits access

NOT long ago, members of the United States House of Representatives received a letter from the Martin Marietta Company. For a fee, they could get the latest farm and crop reports, fed directly to their office computers. House members get dozens of such letters, from companies aiming at a piece of their office allowances. This one, however, had a curious feature. The information in question comes directly from the US Department of Agriculture; Martin Marietta simply puts it into a computer format. In essence, Congress (along with other subscribers) is paying for information that taxpayers already paid to assemble.

``It's a question some of us down here ask,'' says Russell Forte, the USDA project overseer, regarding why the public has to pay again for these data.

Such arrangements are becoming more common in Washington. One of the less-publicized outgrowths of the Reagan-Bush era has been the ``privatizing'' of federal information - letting private vendors sell information the government used to distribute at little or no cost. The price of publications like the Congressional Record has gone up significantly, for example, while federal agencies are couching their computerized data in complex formats that the general public can't tap into, protecting the market for private vendors, critics charge.

To some, these moves represent a promising way to strip down the federal government, shifting work from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs. Of the 4,000 or so electronic databases now available to computer owners, some 20 percent are federal data repackaged for private sale. ``Information is not a free good but a resource of substantial economic value,'' the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has said.

To others, privatizing public information denies taxpayers a resource they need as citizens, homeowners, and in business. Publications like the Congressional Record - the daily account of votes and debates in Congress - are essential for keeping an informed eye on Washington.

`It's one of the most heavily used documents here,'' says Paul Fasana, director of research libraries for the New York City Public Library, speaking of the Congressional Record. He adds that the private-vendor policy is ``causing us to spend a considerable amount for data the federal government already pays for.''

Critics question the premise that the process of informing citizens is best understood as a ``market.''

``We don't place user fees on the right to vote, even though elections cost money,'' James Love, an economist now working for Ralph Nader, said at a Congressional hearing recently. ``These documents are not published to make money for the federal government, but rather to inform citizens.''

The issue first emerged in the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration ordered cuts in federal publishing efforts. In particular, the administration required agencies to transfer publishing activities to private companies, and to raise prices on documents they still put out. The OMB has imposed major staffing cuts on the Federal Bureau of Investigation as punishment for not complying. ``We will lose 147 positions,'' says Norman Christensen, the bureau's assistant director for records management.

Agencies cut the number of federal booklets and reports by the thousands and raised prices significantly on others. Even critics had to agree that such publications as ``How to Control Bedbugs'' were not vital to the nation's future. ``Some junk went out with some good things,'' concedes Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a Washington group that monitors the OMB on behalf of cause-related groups.

But the new policy also affected such basic publications as the Congressional Record and the Federal Register (the latter a daily bulletin of proposed regulations and other proceedings). The price of a Congressional Record subscription increased from $45 to $225 during the '80s, while circulation fell by almost a third. After an even larger increase, Federal Register subscriptions dropped by more than half.

It wasn't well-heeled lobby groups that canceled their subscriptions, but rather volunteer groups and nonprofits. One such group was the Community Information Exchange, a Washington-based clearinghouse that helps neighborhood groups deal with federally funded development projects. Federal Register subscriptions became so expensive ($300 a year) that ``we had to send a researcher down the block'' to peruse a copy, says Alice Shabekoff, the group's director. Finally, Ms. Shabekoff cajoled one of the new information dealers to donate its computer-ready version. But the regular price of this service - $40,000 a year - illustrates the hurdle nonprofits face.

``The United States is in great danger of becoming an information autocracy'' in which only well-financed lobby groups are informed of government actions, warns Prof. Alan Westin of Columbia University Law School.

The nation's libraries have felt the new distribution policies especially hard. Librarians say they now pay at least double, especially when they have to deal with private vendors. Catherine Lucas, a county librarian in San Diego, told a House subcommittee recently that even the federal budget volumes are now ``out of reach for our limited resources.''

In a curious twist, the privatization policy is hurting some small local business people who need this information. Surveys at the New York Public Library show that small business people are the main users of its government-information services. ``They can't afford [sophisticated] marketing surveys, so they look at census statistics,'' says Erminio D'Onofrio, the library's documents librarian.

In part to counter these trends, Congress has required the Environmental Protection Agency to set up a public database of toxic substance reports by individual companies. This ``breaks new ground,'' according to Mr. Bass of OMB Watch. A proposed revision of the federal Paperwork Reduction Act - the Reagan administration's wedge to these issues - would temper the OMB's business thrust with public-access concerns, although critics say it leaves the OMB with too much power.

In addition, Congressman Jim Bates (D) of California is examining the Government Printing Office through his House procurement subcommittee. He wants to know why the GPO doesn't have an 800 number, for example, and why it sells old publications for scrap instead of making these available to schools and libraries.

Yet in these times of multibillion-dollar Savings and Loan bailouts, the federal data issue often draws a yawn. When Mr. Bates held hearings last summer, press coverage was virtually nil. ``Nobody cares about this until there's something they want,'' says Kathryn Heyer, staff director of the subcommittee.

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