August 17, 2017

OITP’s Report from the Swamp | ALA Annual 2017

Donald Trump may not have coined the term “draining the swamp” when he first began talking about his plans to revamp Capitol Hill in 2016. But he did raise the concept’s profile, give it its own hashtag, and offer those who work in Washington, DC an instantly recognizable name for their milieu, whether used disparagingly or affectionately. The speakers at the American Library Association (ALA) Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) session “Report from the Swamp: Policy Developments from Washington,” on Sunday, June 25 at the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago, no doubt intended a little of both.

The panel of speakers consisted of OITP director Alan S. Inouye, OITP deputy director Larra Clark, and Ellen Satterwhite, VP of the Washington-based communications and advocacy firm Glen Echo Group and an OITP fellow, and was moderated by Marc Gartler, chair of OITP’s advisory committee and manager of two branches of the Madison Public Library. Looking beyond the headlines to examine public policy issues that affect ALA, the panelists discussed the need for ongoing vigilance—but also promising avenues for advocacy.

AGENCY STALEMATE

Most governmental personnel have not actually changed with the new administration, noted Inouye; the same people are in place doing what they were doing last year. While there have been a few new appointments, out of 564 key government positions, as of press time only 46 have been confirmed, 130 have been formally nominated, four are awaiting nomination, and the remaining 384 do not even have names proposed. “There are still a lot of places where there’s nobody home yet,” said Inouye, and it’s hard to make a case when there’s nobody to make it to.

The FY18 budget request, released May 23, is not only extremely bad for libraries—it proposes to cut nearly all funding for the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), as well as for the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—but also contains significant cuts to other agencies that ALA has an interest in: the National Library of Medicine, National Telecommunication and Information Administration, Federal Communications Commission, Department of Education, and National Archives and Records Administration, among others. And there isn’t a lot of time left to advocate, as the federal budget year ends in September after a long recess in August.

But as staff positions are populated there will be more action and more to discuss, explained Inouye, as well as new opportunities for resolution. “So we are actually not so pessimistic,” he said. “We do see a future for our interests.”

In the meantime, most agencies are conducting business as usual—which presents an opportunity for advocates. IMLS continues to solicit grants, and as it prepares to launch the newest cycle, it is important for members of the library community to be active participants, both in terms of the number of proposals submitted and their quality. “We need to make the case that this funding is really important to us,” stated Inouye; it’s critical that libraries don’t appear to have given up by not competing for grant opportunities.

FCC NEWS

Speaking next, Satterwhite looked at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the recent focus of an advocacy initiative by the Glen Echo Group (Satterwhite also served as consumer policy advisor in the FCC’s Consumer and Government Affairs Bureau).

An independent regulatory commission that sits outside of the executive branch, the FCC has five members: three from the majority party and two from the minority. Currently three of its seats are filled. Ajit Pai, appointed by Barack Obama in 2012 as an FCC commissioner, was designated as chairman in January by Donald Trump, but as he is beginning a new term, he will need to be reconfirmed by the Senate. Pai’s stance is traditionally Republican, noted Satterwhite, favoring a free market and opposing stricter privacy measures on the part of Internet service providers (ISPs). Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the agency’s sole Democrat, was appointed by Obama in 2009; her term expired at the end of June but she will be allowed to serve until her successor is confirmed by the Senate or the current Congressional session ends in January 2019. The third member, Michael O’Rielly, is anti-regulation—“a traditional telecom Republican”; his term ends in June 2019.

Current front-runners for the two open spots include Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel, who served a previous term at the FCC that ended in 2015, and possibly Pai’s general counsel Brendan Carr, a Republican.

Library advocates need to watch the agency closely, said Satterwhite. Pai has proposed rolling back net neutrality rules, which require ISPs such as Verizon and Comcast to treat all web traffic equally, and modifying or eliminating the “Bright Line Rules” that ban practices of blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization that are harmful to the concept of the open Internet—which is crucial to libraries’ abilities to support their users, stated Satterwhite. So far, voting within the commission has proceeded along party lines.

The fight is expected to move to Congress, but in the meantime the FCC is gathering and filing comments from the public as part of its rulemaking process. OITP asks that members of the library community submit as many comments as possible, said Satterwhite—individuals can do so multiple times—and she asked that people forward her copies of submitted comments as well.

Under the last administration, the FCC modernized its E-Rate and Lifeline programs, which provide broadband support for schools, libraries, and low-income consumers. New funds for Wi-Fi services were added, and new ways for libraries to pursue that funding. The good news, said Satterwhite, is that the funds are stable, and more libraries are pursuing Wi-Fi funding this year than ever.

However, Pai is not a fan of the current E-Rate structure, and has argued for a student-centered program, in which funds would be distributed based on the number of students enrolled in a school district. Such a system doesn’t work well for libraries. “The chairman has said [the FCC] might figure out something for libraries later. We’re looking at what that means,” said Satterwhite. “That’s one of the issues we’ll continue to work on.”

Pai has also rescinded close to a dozen policies instituted by former FCC chair Tom Wheeler, including an expansion of the Lifeline program to a series of stand-alone programs. Satterwhite suspects he is proposing that the FCC limit its authority to support broadband for low-income customers.

There are opportunities, however, she added. Pai has been vocal in his desire to increase broadband deployment and remove regulatory barriers to broadband investment, particularly in rural areas. The current FCC is also bullish on radio frequency spectrum allocation for non-federal use, which could be particularly beneficial for library services.

Satterwhite also anticipates some “merger madness”—the incentive for companies to consolidate power as regulations potentially ease—which would hold both positives and negatives. If the FCC and Department of Justice are ultimately amenable to consolidations between wireless and cable carriers, large companies could join forces—merger talks between Sprint and T-Mobile are currently in the works, and there is speculation about a possible deal between Comcast, Charter Communications, and Verizon. The changes these potential alliances will bring to institutions such as libraries remain to be seen, she noted, but they bear watching.

STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIPS

On a more upbeat note, Clark pointed to the proactive work ALA is doing with the Small Business Administration (SBA) as libraries incorporate strong work around economic opportunity, economic development, and entrepreneurship.

When OITP developed its Policy Revolution! Initiative in 2015, said Clark, it was looking to connect work that libraries were already doing with the priorities civic leaders were talking about, highlighting the strengths that didn’t always come to mind when people thought about libraries. This work, and the need for it, continues. It is critical, she emphasized, that libraries share their stories more widely.

OITP met with SBA during National Library Legislative Day, and organized public library directors to talk with SBA’s Office of Entrepreneurship Education. There, Clark said, “We heard a lot of promising things.” Among them was that SBA and its resource partners can draw up memorandums of understanding (MOU), which many governmental agencies can’t do; this might be something libraries can build on at local, state, and national levels. Women’s business development is a current interest among SBA leadership, as is rural economic development, and the agency’s budget is not locked down. As SBA works on its own behalf to demonstrate the value of investment, libraries can help, asserted Clark. “We can find a win-win there.”

The next step, said Clark, will be to increase library awareness of small business resources. SBA wants to share what it has, and OITP will continue to gather stories and examples.

Similarly, Clark sees an opportunity for libraries to help other government agencies to get the word out about their resources. There are many potential intersections, but the challenge will be to find the most useful ones, and to uncover relationships that may already exist.

The FCC, for instance, wants to reach out to older adults, and libraries—with their expertise on outreach and special needs services—that could potentially help the agency build a playbook to better serve older Americans. And people will need help navigating whatever version of—or replacement for—the Affordable Care Act (ACA) Congress and the administration ultimately arrive at; as they were when the ACA first went into effect, libraries are perfectly positioned to provide that assistance.

“Libraries have important role to play in economic opportunity and equity,” Clark concluded. The challenge will be for them to take advantage of important opportunities for advocacy at the same time.

What is important, said Inouye, is to remember that while the fight for libraries and their values consumes great effort, advocates should be mindful of trying to make progress wherever and whenever they can—and even if that progress is incremental, it’s important.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. Lisa, This IMLS report and your article have each ignited a fire among advocates and yes, I AM a library advocate. So, thank you for the 4th of July fireworks all over again! Libraries can and must keep their focus on the importance of our work and its core value to the life of an engaged Democracy. IMLS is a linchpin in the federal government’s plan to provide all of its citizens a
    level playing field in literacy, education, and stronger, united communities. Chris Rogers – Spartanburg County (SC) Public Libraries

    • Lisa Peet Lisa Peet says:

      Chris, thank you! Comments like yours give me hope on many levels–including the idea that folks are reading and getting inspired. Keep fighting the good fight!

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