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“Policy neutral” does not mean “neutral policies”

Below is a copy of a comment I posted today to the Future Digital System (FDsys) Blog in response to a discussion thread there on the “policy neutral” nature of the FDsys.I invite your responses here or there.

“Policy neutral” does not mean “neutral policies.”

“Policy neutral” means that there are no inviolable policies. The new system will, according to Magan Fleetwood, “adapt” to “guidelines created or adopted by GPO.” So, while GPO may be committed today to no-fee permanent public access, the future digital system is designed to accommodate a change to that policy. While the FDsys requirements “do not prevent or limit free public access to authenticated content” neither do the requirements guarantee it. On the contrary, the system is designed to accommodate any policy, including the opposite of the current commitment. The FDSys is designed to be flexible enough to accommodate treating different information products differently — some without fees and some with fees, for instance.

It is easy to imagine how well-intentioned policies today could be superseded by financial or other constraints tomorrow. (See What the Copyright Office / Internet Explorer rule tells us about government information for real-life examples of such constraints.) The original “Transition Plan” was explicit about recognizing limitations when it said, “Electronic information under the custody of the SOD will be maintained for access” not permanently, but only, “as long as usage warrants.” [emphasis added]. We can take no comfort from the fact that this wording (from 1996-1998 Transition Plan) has been dropped from subsequent plans because the new system is being designed not to prevent such policies, but to accommodate them.

It is easy to imagine FDSys adapting to new policies and dropping information such as old reports that are not being used frequently, or statistics that are “out of date,” or content judged “sensitive” by politicians, or large databases that are too expensive to keep online. It is easy to imagine content that is expensive to keep online and that is not used frequently being relegated to a fee-based system, or “permanent” access being provided by private-sector “partners.” It is easy to imagine policies changing to accommodate financial constraints so that some information is available to the public without fees, but other information (or more functional versions of that information) are available only for a fee.

When government information was deposited in depository libraries, such policy changes were difficult or impossible to implement. The new system is being designed to make it easy to implement them.

In fairness, GPO cannot guarantee anything else. Magan is right to include qualifications to GPO’s commitment to providing no-fee permanent public access; (“Based on enabling legislation” and “in-scope content” and “GPO intends to… permit…” [emphasis added]). GPO cannot go beyond what it is legislatively authorized and funded to do. How could it guarantee to provide access in the future to content that became defined by others as out of scope? How could it provide permanent, public, no-fee access to everything if its funding became inadequate to do so? How can GPO guarantee no-fee access if its own mission is to distribute electronic documents “on a cost recovery basis.” GPO cannot guarantee these things so its “commitment,” while noble, is not enough.

There are, however, two things that GPO can guarantee. I ask GPO to respond here if it will do so.

1. Will GPO guarantee that it will provide information products for free to the public and that those products will be fully-functional and not encumbered, disabled, controlled or otherwise non-optimal or locked-down versions?

2. Will GPO guarantee that it will make available for deposit, without fee, into FDLP libraries that wish to receive them, all fully functional digital government information products within its purview?

These are guarantees that GPO can make and that will accomplish two things that promises of future commitment cannot. First, they will ensure that government information will be, at its release, freely available to all without encumbrance and individuals will be able to use and re-use the information without having to pay for the information or its use and re-use. Second, while GPO cannot control the future, it can ensure that every new document is deposited, at its release, in as many libraries as possible, creating a safety net and alternative to the FDSys in case policies change.

1 Comment

  1. The notion of a GPO guarantee has been nagging at me as well. One of the foundations of the Depository idea is to guarantee that what was once published will always be available because it has been distributed so widely into hubs of potential user populations (depository libraries); no matter what tragedy befalls one library, no matter what agency folds into another, no matter the presidential administration and its kindness or hostility toward a free reign of information about itself, no matter the fluctuations of budget from one year to another. The system is distributed because guarantees are so hard to sustain by single, mono-budgeted entities. This is in fact a refrain heard with increasing intensity from depository librarians, who with a sizable amount of historic leverage are protesting a centralized, electronic repository of information because the information therein could feasibly be acted upon by hands not altogether in line with the goal of full, perpetual access.

    One thing that seems to be too easily dismissed from these discussions is how the existing model of Depository, wherein the material produced by GPO is sent to site libraries for dispersion to local clientele, might be able to stay how it is. The question asked in this blog has yet to be answered, and it’s a very important one: somewhere within the bulk of this new electronic system, can’t there be a way to still distribute content to depository libraries? If GPO documents will all be fully-tagged electronic xml, is there anything other than server load that would prevent any single depository from downloading, incrementally, each day’s or week’s or month’s new additions to their own local systems? And if the format is open (xml), and the content is open (freely-available, taxpayer-sanctioned government information) then what policy might prevent depositories from still being physical/digital depositories of this material? Other than the ability to intelligently handle the process of storing such a vast amount of data, I mean?

    Well, perhaps that’s the rub: in order for GPO to distribute these electronic government documents, they would need people on the terminal ends of that distribution who possessed a specialized, even esoteric set of skills to process them. I would say it’s a shame this couldn’t happen, except that it is happening already. Does this not, in fact, more or less accurately describe the existing depository model? Documents are distributed to GovDocs departments that must possess specialized, almost esoteric skills in order to process them, no? So whose fault is it really that those peculiar, esoteric skills are changing to include xml transformations, database skills, or web-based extraction for users?

    Some of us are already familiar or are becoming familiar, or are perhaps even proficient with electronic applications that benefit especially well from open data standards, xml in particular. So the possibility exists that if GPO were to provide free, downloadable dumps of their content, certain enterprising GovDocs librarians might be able to add value to those materials, either selectively or in sum. Custom subsets of these materials appropriate to the institution, internal collection analysis tools, redistribution through institution-appropriate interfaces, and just good old storage are all examples of things that might be performed on these free, open data were they made available from GPO.

    So about Jim Jacobs’ guarantees: GPO could certainly guarantee free exports of recently-tagged xml content, no? Maybe? If ‘yes’, then GovDocs librarians have less of an excuse to complain, no? Given a certain set of learnable information processing skills and a supply of content from GPO, what’s to prevent the existing model of actual, physical distribution from moving along with GPO into this new FDsys? Ugh, it’s librarians.

    This source content distribution model is not unlike what many government agencies, perhaps no more than the Census Bureau, already do. In fact, let’s take American FactFinder as our example of an agency-run system/application that also happens to allow raw-format downloads of the material in a more open and agile format (delimited data files). In this case, a user (and by user in this case I mean Depository Library) can store, utilize, or even build applications upon (I’m thinking of GIS in particular) those data. The Census Bureau also does this by releasing Public Use Microdata Samples for depositories to do with what they please. I know that citing these Census examples requires me to also admit that the scale and organization of a GPO-sponsored download system might render the PUMS or dbf-download model not a little bit irrelevant. But there are Government Documents librarians out here in the world that have an ability to and interest in doing interesting things for their institutions with government-produced information. No matter the format.

    Examples notwithstanding, GovDocs librarians seem to rarely consider that what might really need to change here isn’t GPO’s eagerness to go electronic and centralized. If the discipline is changing, why shouldn’t GovDocs librarians also require change and evolution of themselves? The skills librarians used to have when documents were sent to sites as paper are insufficient for when documents are sent electronically. Does that not beg the question as to why librarians can’t outfit themselves with the new skills? If we’re going to complain so bitterly about the absence of local, perpetual copies of GPO’s electronic content, why not fight back by learning the skills that will allow us to indeed retain local, perpetual copies of that electronic content? GPO is ahead of us GovDocs librarians, or rather us GovDocs librarians are behind the greater surge to electronic-everything, waving for its adherents, GPO included, to please come back and help us preserve material. If we can consume GPO’s xml (and now I’ll remind us all that xml is made to be consumable) instead of its boxes and shipping lists, why can’t we still be depositories proper?

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