The Open House Project from The Sunlight Foundation

GAO and West, Round Three

April 15th, 2008 by John Wonderlich · No Comments

I know, I know–again with the negative GAO stories. I love the GAO, and even suggest they get a much larger budget in a post below. There are only two criticisms I’ve been writing about regarding the GAO: ONE (1) is their apparent non-compliance with their mandate to review Financial Disclosure’s effectiveness, and TWO (2) is about GAO’s apparently exclusive contract with West for digitizing their legislative histories (quite valuable public documents). This is about number TWO (2) — wherein a company is paid to digitize valuable historical paper documents, creating useful public documents.

From Boing Boing we find that the GAO has responded to Carl Malamud’s FOIA request, and also that:

that data has been sold down the river and is out to sea.

Public.Resource.Org sent in a FOIA request to GAO on this topic seeking access to the scanned data. Today’s letter answering our FOIA request spells out the bad news. Turns out the GAO doesn’t even get the data, they simply are given an account on Thomson’s service. The rest of the government doesn’t get access to this data, and the public is invited to stop by the GAO headquarters and pay 20 cents per page to copy paper.

I suspect that the GAO is annoyed with this as we are. If this description is accurate, GAO is getting an amazingly bad deal. After allowing West to build a service for their company to profit from publicly funded publicly made public documents, West is giving them access as though they’re regular consumers.

GAO set out to digitize immensely valuable holdings, and the digitization was performed, yet we’re not seeing an increase in public access at all, and even the GAO has to access their own information through the pay service. That’s ridiculous.

It looks like there’s going to be a further need for one of many potential oversight bodies to weigh in on best (or mandated) practices for digitizing agency (or committee, or member) documents holdings. Public Private partnerships can make sense, but administrators need to understand the options they have before giving exclusive rights to government documents away to businesses that sell access to them.

I wonder if Carl could get a West account too, and then downloaded the documents from them, removed all of the aspects that aren’t in the public domain (if that works, I have no idea) and then posted the documents back to the public domain on public resource. Would that work?

This would be very much in the style of this professor (also linked from Boing Boing), who has founded the Movement for the Liberation of Old Papers, or MLOP. I hope he’s met Carl. :)

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