Can agencies accept ads, fees?

FCW's Dot-Gov Thursday column looks at the conditions under which agencies can accept paid advertising or fees from the public

The most difficult question we at GSA's Emerging IT Policies Division recently researched on behalf of federal Webmasters was whether an agency could accept paid advertising from the public.

There are two parts to the answer. First, you must be legislatively enabled to accept and use funds from the public. Second, the activity that the public is paying for must be consistent with your overall authority to act — the mission of your agency — as defined in legislation.

For the most part, unless you have authority from Congress to act, you should assume you cannot perform the activity. The authority to accept and use fees from the public must be specific in legislation.

To determine if you have the legislative authority to accept fees from the public and whether the activity is consistent with your mission, contact your legal department for guidance.

However, even if you find out that you do not have authority to accept money from the public, that isn't the end of the story. You may find that there are pockets within your organization that have legislative authority to accept funds.

For instance, the General Services Administration's Federal Consumer Information Center is legislatively enabled to accept fees and donations from the public for publications distributed through the FCIC. If there is not an organization within your agency that can charge fees, try turning to federal organizations outside your agency.

When it comes to information dissemination, the FCIC, the Government Printing Office and other federal organizations can provide World Wide Web-related services that can be paid for via fees from the public. They can provide support in information dissemination as long as the support you propose is consistent with their overall mission as defined by legislation.

For instance, suppose you have a complicated document that needs to be Web-enabled. If you do not have the funds or expertise internally to prepare the document for public Internet use, you can negotiate to have GPO do it. GPO will set an appropriate fee to recover the costs of posting the document to the Web and advertising the document.

You also benefit because GPO has a popular Web site and has expertise in maintaining customer lists. Everyone wins: the public, your organization and GPO.

In answering the question of accepting fees from the public for paid advertising, a much larger issue came to light: appropriations law. Appropriations can be used only for the purpose, time and amount as stated in legislation. There are also close ties between appropriations law and contracting. For instance, you must have the appropriation before you can make a contract.

Federal Web managers should have a basic understanding of appropriations law. A helpful resource is "the GAO Red Book" — a summary of appropriations law officially titled "Principles of Federal Appropriations Law" and published by GAO's Office of the General Counsel.

All three volumes of this "summary" are well over a thousand pages. Instead of reading this document, I suggest taking a two-day course — "Implications of Federal Appropriations Law" — provided by the Treasury Department's Center for Applied Financial Management. I took this course and believe it should be a requirement for anyone in the federal government who is directly or indirectly responsible for contracts and/or funds.

However, the GAO Red Book can be downloaded for conducting word searches on appropriations issues as needed. For instance, the sections on whether you can accept free services from vendors can be found by searching for the word "donations." On the issue of authority to act, the GAO Red Book states that a "federal agency is a creature of law and can function only to the extent authorized by law."

— Kellett is founder of the Federal Web Business Council, co-chairman of the Federal Webmasters Forum and is director of GSA's Emerging IT Policies Division.