Ask yourself: would you order a pamphlet titled "Dishing up the Dog and Cat Food" or "Causes and Preventions of Car Rust" or "Imaginative Ways with Bathrooms" or even "And Now a Word about Shampoo"? Neither does anyone else. How about some tips on "imaginative junk" or "drinking etiquette" or "attracting and feeding birds"? No? Yet at least one federal agency wonders why more Americans aren't jumping at the chance to obtain this valuable information.
Of course, not all government publications offered by the Consumer Information Service are obviously ridiculous, but little of the information related in the 400-plus CIS titles couldn't be found in everyone's local library. And indeed, the frivolous nature of some of the offerings does not obscure disturbing questions about the organization itself.
The relatively new federal agency has recently become highly visible as the result of a national advertising campaign, a campaign that has spawned the appropriate bumpersticker question, Where the hell is Pueblo, Colorado? For it is from Pueblo that consumer brochures designed, in the words of one CIS employee, "to help people help themselves," are distributed. It is to Pueblo that consumers are being urged to write for "Tips on Canker Sores" and scores of other such leaflets dispensing vital information.
Once a quiet trading-post town, Pueblo rests 100 miles south of Denver and is now the second-largest city in the state. Pueblo has a western ambience, thanks to nearby sagebrush and mountains. Most of America knows Pueblo, not for its impressive collection of Indian artifacts, but for its box number, from which can issue colorful brochures—"Varicose Veins," "The Price of Death," and "Getting a Summer Tan." The little television voice that tells America to "write Pueblo, Colorado, Box whatever, 81009" just after a little voice sings, "Learn the happy facts and be a happier you," is government-funded, though, and a tax-burdened public should want a closer look into this new agency.
On October 26,1970, President Nixon issued an executive order creating the Consumer Product Information Coordinating Center. The center opened for business in 1971 with the original intention of providing the public with government-compiled information on product safety and effectiveness. Gradually, like other aspects of government, the center grew in self-appointed responsibility. It had soon taken on the task of getting government publications to a central location, from which to distribute information thought to be desired by consumers. With such a noble goal, the center was bequeathed a Government Printing Office warehouse in Pueblo to use for distribution.
In 1976 the CIS initiated an intensive media campaign to prompt consumers' letter writing to Pueblo. Television commercials, news releases entitled "New for Consumers," and radio spots daily exhort the public to write to Pueblo for a free brochure on some facet of life or death. As a result, over half the mail sent to the CIS in Pueblo is the direct result of that advertising effort.
Cars now sport bumperstickers asking the damned whereabouts of Pueblo, Colorado, and though people don't know exactly what else Pueblo is, they do know someone is always telling them to write there for some reason or another. What Pueblo is other than the site of a CIS warehouse really shouldn't worry taxpayers. But what comes out of that one small building definitely should.
Eighteen surprisingly atypical bureaucrats operate the CIS in Washington, D.C. These bureaucrats ransack the government agencies in town and collect a list of publications they think Americans should be privy to. The Government Printing Office (GPO) prints them up, the center sponsors the advertising campaign, and Pueblo distributes the little tokens of governmental concern for its people. The 1977-78 budget for the center was $4.7 million, but that sum only covers advertising and distribution. Each individual agency has to pay for research, writing, and printing—adding tens of millions to the real bill.
What makes the employees at the CIS atypical bureaucrats is not that their budget is large but that they number 18 and have their fingers in all 124 agencies in the government. What makes them surprisingly atypical is that they appear to do a remarkably efficient job of preparing to shovel out the material to the public.
About 30 agencies provide the bulk of the CIS publications, on everything from OSHA's advice to ranchers "not to fall into manure pits," to Agriculture's pamphlet on the "elasticity of food consumption associated with changes in income in developing countries." The center has established liaisons with each of these agencies and suggests to the various bureaucracies what to print and what not to print and edits for readability and thrift. The 18 also strive to prevent costly duplication of publications.
"To move a bureaucracy is almost impossible," says HUD liaison Alice Shabacoff in the Office of Consumer Affairs. "It's like trying to move an elephant with a pen. But the center has done just that. I'd say they were one of the most efficient groups in the entire government."
To prove her point Shabacoff tells of a year-long project of one woman in her own agency to research and write "Wise Rental Practices." In another division of HUD, at the same time, an almost carbon-copy publication was being written, costing in time and expenses thousands of dollars in needless duplication. "That type of thing used to happen quite often," says CIS Director David Peterson. "Two agencies never know what the other is doing unless we tell them, and hopefully then we can keep at least publications organized."
If government publications there will be, then organizing them may be a praiseworthy objective. The center, however, also wants credit for a "successful" letter-writing campaign to Pueblo, Colorado, designed so that Americans can help themselves to some purportedly vital information. But Pueblo is far from being deluged by requests.
Demographic studies made by the center have shown that a vast majority of those who respond to the advertising campaigns are well-educated and middle-income Americans, but the easy-reading, free CIS publications such as "Rx for Sound Teeth" and "The Food Stamp Program" are designed for someone else. Not only are less-affluent, less-educated Americans failing to cash in on the service, but their tax dollars are subsidizing its use by the more-advantaged.
"The problem is, we can supply the information and advice on how to get it, but we can't supply the initiative to order it," says Tom Catlin, distribution coordinator at the center. Even with an average 12,000 press releases mailed weekly to newspapers and magazines, another 300 to radio stations nationwide, and everyone's favorite CIS television commercial seen more often than Lucy reruns, the lower-income, less-educated public the center yearns to assist won't write to Pueblo.
In 1977, CIS catalogues with order blanks went out to the remarkable sum of 20 million people. The 16-page catalogues list over 400 different publications annually. But it would seem the center is better at distributing them than at persuading people to order from them. In the same year, it sent out two million more copies of its catalogue than of all its other publications combined.
Of course, the 18 million publications distributed by the CIS in 1977 represent a tremendous increase; two years earlier, distribution amounted to only 8 million. And it is certain that without the CIS only a handful of publications could have been circulated by the various government agencies, which do not have the funds to advertise on such a large scale.
Catlin says that an average distribution of 2,000 per publication is great for an agency but a mere drop in the bucket for the CIS. With its continuing intensive advertising, the center hopes that in 1979 the number of brochures distributed will hit 20 million, topping the number of catalogues advertising them.
The stated goal of the CIS is to help educate and transmit government-compiled information to the public. But it appears that Americans do not want to be educated with the facts their government is spending millions to discover and print.
Even with 18 million CIS publications distributed in 1977, on the optimistic assumption that each publication went to a new recipient, only 7 Americans in 100 ever saw a single one. In fact, though, Pueblo records show that only 4 million different Americans—or about 1.6 percent of the population—were recipients of the publications. Thus, more than 98 percent of Americans are subsidizing a program they don't use.
But how much money is actually spent on the CIS? A good question, and one the government has made it impossible to answer. The center spends $4.5 million on advertising and distribution. The GPO lays out almost another $2.5 million annually to print the free materials. Though 70 percent of CIS publications are free, some costing anywhere from 35 cents to $3.40 are also distributed. How much is spent to print those is hidden somewhere within each agency's individual budget, as is the cost of research and writing.
After the various agencies print up materials on their own, the CIS goes to the agency liaison for an estimate of how many publications the public will order. The CIS sometimes suggests publishing projects to the agencies, based on CIS public surveys, letters written to the center, and watching current affairs. The GPO then determines the cost of producing the publication and attaches a price to it that the individual agencies must pay. (By law, under Title 44, the public printer must recover the costs of printing plus 50 percent profit on all publications. But there is some question how prices are fixed, since, as one CIS official said, "each year the public printer loses more and more money.") The agencies can then either hand over the publications to the CIS for free distribution or require it to sell them and return the proceeds.
As a result of entwined agency printing budgets, the separate costs for printing are buried deep inside the GPO warehouse, which, in over 400,000 square feet, stores 25,000 different titles coming to the printer from 124 agencies. (The Department of Agriculture alone turned out 2,649 different publications in 1976, and the agency is quick to disclose that this is quite a decrease from 10 years ago.) The CIS uses only about 400 publications a year with about 60 new titles annually. The total cost to the taxpayers for the CIS is impossible to determine.
At least it is known, however, how many millions are used in Pueblo for distribution and how much is spent in D.C. for advertising and management—in the 1977-78 fiscal year, $3.6 million and $1.1 million. Up until October 1977 the legislative office budget included the CIS's distribution costs, but thanks to a Congress worried by rising expenses, these costs were transferred directly to the center, thus reducing the legislative office budget.
Whatever the taxpayers' actual burden, the fact remains that it is a service that lower-income taxpayers don't use and apparently don't want. Indeed, a closer look at the CIS publications reveals why the public isn't rushing to write to Pueblo, Colorado.
CIS materials range in extremes from a 32-page pamphlet, "Color in Our Daily Lives," to a valuable publication informing us that there is no preventive or cure for the common cold—in only six pages. As a matter of fact, telling more than anyone could possibly want to know is a common trait of the CIS publications. The Energy Research and Development Administration provides a nicely designed pamphlet on quarks (one of the little things they get when they split atoms). Another, "Nutrition Guide for Pet Owners," comes with full-page photos of dogs and cats. Animal lovers perhaps won't feel so badly knowing their tax dollars are going for 8 x 11 glossies of beagles and Siamese.
Even after editing by the CIS, absurd statements sometimes appear in the distributed brochures. In one, "So You're Going to Use a Fireplace," published by the Office of Consumer Affairs, the reader learns "not to get too close to the fire while wearing loose cloths"—one may catch on fire. In the "Imaginative Bathrooms" brochure one can read, "The bathroom even in its conventional use is a very important place. There is no one who can do without a bathroom or would want to. The bathroom is the first place we go in the morning and the last place at night." Who can say how America survived before that piece of governmental knowledge was exposed?
Because the American public isn't (yet, and if ever) finding a great need for contacting Pueblo, undistributed publications must every two years be destroyed. Distribution Coordinator Catlin estimates the CIS only destroys about 60,000 publications annually or, at an average 20 cents for printing costs, about $12,000 worth—a pittance to the GPO, which has a $100 million budget for congressional printing costs alone.
Those that aren't destroyed, or distributed, are stored or sent back to the source, the agency that provided them. As in the private publishing business, the CIS must guesstimate which publications will move and how many to order from the GPO. Unlike the private publishing business, however, when the center guesswork fails, the American taxpayer loses money to an incinerator. Ironically, the publications that move the fastest out of Pueblo are governmental tips on how to save money.
But perhaps the biggest worry over the government's publishing business shouldn't be about wasting time, energy, and money with inane ideas or statements. A handful of publications are much more costly to Americans—not in terms of money, but rather in advancing particular causes and viewpoints.
One CIS pamphlet on economics asserts that, with a growing population, America needs a growing government. It also deprecates competition in the supply of electricity or natural gas as potentially contrary to the public interest. Other publications the CIS distributes editorialize on cigarette smoking and laetrile. Yet another allows free advertising for its writer, a camping store operator, who lists the names of his stores in an article on backpacking that the CIS distributes for free.
To be fair, the center does distribute occasional worthwhile publications on subjects such as "employment for the aged" or "drinking and driving for teenagers." Nevertheless, the undeniable fact is that the public can learn everything in the CIS brochures by looking in their public library or writing to a private company.
In view of the redundancy of its operations, the frequently frivolous nature of the publications, and the lackluster response from consumers, the center deserves a hard look by a government-weary public. Taxpayers are paying millions of dollars for a service that only a tiny portion of the public uses.
A more apt bumpersticker might read, Who the hell needs Pueblo, Colorado?
Pamela Elliott has a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and has worked as a reporter in the Appalachian region. She is now working toward a law degree.