NTIS' Continuing Punishment

Here's a question for new Commerce secretary Norman Mineta: Why does the U.S.

Department of Commerce continue to punish the National Technical Information Service with a personnel hiring freeze?

A year ago, former Commerce secretary William Daley announced that the department would close NTIS because the agency had fallen several million dollars into the red, and its business model was outmoded in the Internet Age.

In fact, Commerce has not only failed in its attempt to shut down the agency, but it can't even get any member of Congress to introduce the necessary legislation.

And the House Appropriations Committee cut the close-down funding from the department's budget, so killing NTIS is a dead issue in the Clinton administration. Despite that, the hiring freeze has stayed in place.

Furthermore, no one supports shutting down NTIS. Members of U.S. Congress have roundly criticized the Commerce Department's intentions. The White House and the U.S. Office of Management and Budget have maintained a thundering silence in the matter. The National Commission on Libraries and Information Science produced a report challenging the closure decision and is now conducting a study sure to result in further criticisms for the department's hasty action and shoddy reasoning. In the meantime, NTIS undertook substantial cost saving measures and is now several million dollars in the black. So the financial reasons for closing the agency have disappeared.

And what has the Commerce Department been doing about NTIS over the past 12 months?

Other than giving some fallacious testimony before Congress, Commerce has essentially been imposing the hiring freeze with an iron hand.

And then, irony of ironies, Commerce went ahead and saddled NTIS with a new Senior Executive Service official. Now that makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?

Because you're concerned about NTIS' financial health, you assign a high-priced new body to NTIS while at the same time forbidding the agency to fill any of its lower-priced vacancies. In these circumstances, punishment is not too strong a word to describe the department's actions.

Message Received

Commerce is delivering a clear message: We've failed to put NTIS out of existence, so we'll starve them to death with personnel attrition. And of course, the Commerce Department has strictly muzzled NTIS from speaking out in public about the situation.

This is petty bureaucratic politics at its meanest.

Secretary Mineta, please do yourself, the department and the taxpayers a favor by taking a fresh look at the NTIS situation and adopting a more enlightened and reasonable course of action.

--Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates, Washington, D.C.

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