Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Federal Data Go Private Vendors Repackage Public Information - at a Price That Limits Access

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Federal Data Go Private Vendors Repackage Public Information - at a Price That Limits Access

Article excerpt

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. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.