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Twitter and newspapers are buzzing with complaints about widespread problems with access to government information and data (see for example, Wall Street Journal (paywall 😐 ), ZDNet News, Pew Center, Washington Post, Scientific American, TheVerge, and FedScoop to name but a few).
Maybe when/if the government opens again, we should scrape the NIST and CSRC websites, put all those publications somewhere public. It’s worrying that *every single US cryptography standard* is now unavailable to practitioners.
— Matthew Green (@matthew_d_green) January 12, 2019
Matthew Green, a professor at Johns Hopkins, said “It’s worrying that every single US cryptography standard is now unavailable to practitioners.” He was responding to the fact that he could not get the documents he needed from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) or its branch, the Computer Security Resource Center (CSRC). The government shutdown is the direct cause of these problems.
Others who noticed the same problem started chiming in to the discussion Green started, noting that they couldn’t find the standards they needed in Google’s cache or the Wayback machine, either. Someone else suggested that “Such documents should be distributed to multiple free and public repositories” and said that “These documents are “Too important to have subject to a single point of failure.” Someone else said that he downloads personal copies of the documents he needs every month, but had missed one that he uses “somewhat often.” One lone voice wondered about “Federal Depository Libraries, of which I believe there is at least one in every state.” (James responded to that one, letting people know about the FDLP and End of Term crawl!)
There are at least two reasons why users cannot get the documents they need from government servers during the shutdown. In some cases, agencies have apparently shut off access to their documents. (This is the case for both NIST and CSRC.) In other cases, the security certificates of websites have expired — with no agency employees to renew them! — leaving whole websites either insecure or unavailable or both.
Regardless of who you (or your user communities) blame for the shutdown itself, this loss of access was entirely foreseeable and avoidable. It was foreseeable because it has happened before. It was avoidable because libraries can select, acquire, organize, and preserve these documents and provide access to them and services for them whether the government is open or shut-down.
Some libraries probably do have some of these documents. But too many libraries have chosen to adopt a new model of “services without collections.” GPO proudly promotes this model as “All or Mostly Online Federal Depository Libraries.” GPO itself is affected by this model. Almost 20% of the PURLs in CGP point to content on non-GPO government servers. So, even though GPO’s govinfo database and catalog of government publications (CGP) may still be up and running, during the shut-down GPO cannot ensure that all its “Permanent URLs” (PURLs) will work.
This no-collections-model means that libraries are too often choosing simply to point to collections over which they have no control — and we’ve known what happens “When we depend on pointing instead of collecting” for quite some time. When those collections go offline and users lose access, users begin to wonder why someone hasn’t foreseen this problem and put “all those publications somewhere public.”
The gap between what libraries could do to prevent the kind of loss of access the shutdown is causing and what they are doing is particularly notorious in the area of government information. Most federal government information is in the public domain and is available without technical or copyright restrictions or fees. There is nothing preventing libraries from building collections to support users except the will to do so.
Many library administrators are eager to proclaim that pointing to collections they do not control is the new role of libraries in the digital age. Those who promote this new model of services without collections then struggle to demonstrate the value of libraries to their user communities. This is difficult when those communities go directly to collections of information, bypassing libraries and, perhaps, wondering why libraries still exist at all.
This represents a failure by libraries to fulfill their role in society and in the digital information ecosystem.
When the shutdown ends, access will, presumably, be restored. In the wake of the many other problems caused by the shutdown (many of them immediate and even dangerous), this temporary loss of access to some government information may not seem pressing. But librarians should see this as another wake-up call. Hopefully, Depository Library Council’s recent recommendation regarding digital deposit will answer that call. Libraries should not focus on bemoaning the short-term problem. We should, instead, focus on making the next crisis impossible. We can do this by focusing on the long-term problems of digital collection development, preservation and access. The current crisis may be temporary, but when we rely only on the government to provide access to these important resources, access will remain vulnerable to the next crisis or misstep or conscious decision to cut off access. We need to recognize that government agencies do not always have the same priorities as our users.
Today, libraries cannot ensure long-term access to government information because they do not control it. But, if libraries select, acquire, organize, and preserve the government information that is vital to their user communities, then they can ensure long-term access to it. You will not have to persuade your users of the value of your library when you do what they value.
James A. Jacobs, University of California San Diego
James R. Jacobs, Stanford University
2019 is not starting off on a good foot for the Government Publishing Office (GPO). NPR reports that in June 2018, GPO’s Office of Inspector General sent an interim report to the Joint Committee on Printing (JCP), the congressional committee that oversees the agency finding mismanagement, misuse of position, and disregard” for hiring and contracting rules. We’ll see how this plays out, and hopefully it won’t negatively effect the working of the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) which GPO runs in collaboration with 1100+ libraries across the US.
It’s important to note that this isn’t the first time that GPO has found itself in hot water, and this allegation, in my opinion, sounds like a single instance of personnel issue gone bad, not a case of massive organizational corruption. Remember that in 2007 – 2008, GPO’s leadership — not coincidentally led by the Trump Administration’s current nominee for GPO Director and former public printer Robert C. Tapella! — was caught in a case of outsourcing and massively overcharging the State Department for the sale of millions of blank passports and then going on spending sprees and travel junkets in order to spend the ill-gained profits. The story was covered by the Washington Times and also republished on a bulletin board of a right wing political bulletin board.
Allegations of cronyism, wasteful spending and other misconduct are roiling a little-known federal agency in charge of producing and distributing the government’s official documents, including paper questionnaires for the upcoming 2020 census.According to an internal watchdog report obtained by NPR, two officials at the U.S. Government Publishing Office — previously known as the Government Printing Office — allegedly violated federal laws and regulations by filling agency jobs with unqualified candidates, including an official’s son. The GPO’s Office of Inspector General has not finalized its findings, but in June, it sent an interim report to the joint congressional committee that oversees the agency.
Lawmakers on the Senate Rules and Administration Committee have “sought additional information regarding allegations of misconduct at the GPO,” according to Katie Boyd, spokeswoman for Chairman Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. His committee shares oversight of the GPO with the House Administration Committee.
The inspector general’s office found “mismanagement, misuse of position, and disregard” for hiring and contracting rules by two of the agency’s most senior managers over the course of four years, beginning in 2014 during the Obama administration, according to the report.
Happy holidays from FGI! Seeing as many are not at work or checking their email, you might have missed that Depository Library Council recently released their recommendations to GPO. Under the tree this year is a recommendation to create a digital deposit working group! We’ve been talking for over a decade about the need for digital deposit – whereby GPO would actually deposit digital files to libraries just as they do currently with paper documents. Digital deposit will ensure the preservation and access of digital government information disseminated by GPO and allow libraries to continue to build collections for their designated communities. This is a huge step forward!
Recommendation #3: Council recommends the creation of a working group to explore current and future needs related to digital deposit – both dissemination of content and acceptance of content by GPO. At a minimum, two appropriate members of GPO staff, two members of DLC, and two members of the FDLP community should be appointed to serve on the Digital Deposit Working Group for one year. Composition of the working group should be chosen by DLC in consultation with GPO staff. The Working Group should report findings and recommendations – either initial or final – at the Fall 2019 FDLP annual meeting.
Justification: Council believes that such a Digital Deposit Working Group is a critically important and inclusive step in reaching consensus on how federal information in digital forms should be disseminated to and amongst the FDLP community for the benefit of all our users.
The so-called FDLP Modernization Act of 2018 (H.R.5305) corrects many of the flaws of the 1993 law. It catches the law up to what it should have been in 1993 and conforms to current GPO practice. Specifically, it requires GPO to provide free access to digital content; it requires GPO to have a program of digital preservation; it changes the scope of GPO and FDLP with new definitions of “Information Dissemination Products” (IDPs) — a term used by OMB since 1996; and it requires GPO to abide by existing privacy laws (going back to 1974 and 2002).
These are welcome improvements, but they fall short of “modernizing” the law to the conditions of 2018 and beyond. A few small changes can go a long way to truly modernizing the law. These changes will create a collaborative, digital FDLP; guarantee long-term, no-fee access to government information insulated from federal political and economic pressures; and enhance services to users.