If, like many people, you’re an investor, you are already familiar with the market-moving impact of government data, like the Department of Labor’s monthly payrolls and unemployment figures.  What you probably don’t know are the ways in which the DOL has for decades arranged for release of this information, or of their plans to change the procedure in July.

In order to ensure the simultaneous release of the data, the Department conducts what they call a “press lock-up.”  It works this way: At 7:30 a.m. on the day figures are to be released, about a dozen reporters arrive at the DOL, and at 8 a.m. they surrender their mobile devices, are locked in a room with the electricity cut, and given the data.  The reporters then use their own computers and software to write their stories, often with analysis and graphs, such that when the DOL restores electricity at the release time, 8:30 a.m., the reporters can then transmit their stories over their own dedicated lines.

By all accounts, this procedure has worked well and has provided the public with timely and important information, delivered in context by professional news organizations.

On April 10, however, the department announced major changes in this procedure, the most important of which are these: All computers and communication lines, which to date have been owned by the participating news organizations, are to be removed and replaced with government-owned computers and telecommunications lines; all participating news organizations’ press credentials will expire, and those news organizations that wish to participate in the future must apply for new credentials; and those groups that do apply “will be considered as an overall group and not necessarily on an individual basis (that) distributes a variety of news products that reach a wide and diverse audience.”

There are some disturbing policy aspects as well as practical problems with this scheme, and an important question that the Labor Department refuses to answer: What’s wrong with the old system, and why change it?

By requiring them to draft their stories on government computers, the DOL is, in effect, obliging reporters to turn over their notebooks.  Moreover, there appears to be less security in the new plan since all data would be released through the Internet rather than, as is presently done, through dedicated and redundant lines owned by the participating media.

Owing to the fact that the new policy was announced without notice or comment, the DOL arranged a conference call with reporters on April 16, presided over by the department’s press spokesman, Carl Fillichio.

In the same way that great truths are sometimes revealed, if unwittingly, by the smallest people, the transcript of this call speaks volumes.

Witness, for instance, this exchange during the call:

Daniel Moss (Bloomberg News): “I’m just wondering, why is the Labor Department choosing to do this now?  What is the problem that you believe you are trying to fix given the master switch is already in place and working effectively?

Carl Fillichio: It’s been, as I mentioned, 10 years since we took a holistic view of the lock-up, and times have certainly changed.  Why now rather than any other time?  Now is the right time to do it.

Daniel Moss: What is the problem that you imagine you’re trying to fix given there is an effective master switch there already that controls access out of the room for the information?

Carl Fillichio: There’s nothing we necessarily expect.  I think we’re doing prudent business management of reviewing our systems and looking at the changes in technology and the way that the news is delivered and have decided that now is the correct time to institute these changes….

Daniel Moss: Do I interpret your response, Carl, as meaning there is no current problem?

Carl Fillichio: What I’m trying to do is prevent a problem, Daniel.

Daniel Moss: What is the problem you think, you imagine, that this will prevent.

Carl Fillichio: I think we’re going to move on.  Operator, we’ll take the next question. 

There’s more like this, lots more, with some of the better ones being Fillichio’s exchanges with Steven Goldstein of MarketWatch, and Mark Tapscott of the Washington Examiner.  You can read the whole of the transcript here.

Though he never says that any violations of the lock-ups are the cause of the new policy, nor that the new policy will correct for any such violations, Fillichio does aver that two reporters in the past were “suspended” from the lock-ups. Since he refuses to elaborate about these alleged past infractions, much less to say that they were of the sort that necessitated the new policy, one is left to wonder.

Seems hard to believe that the problem would have been early public release of the data since, if anyone did so, the other news organizations would know about it and loudly object.  Perhaps there were instances where the data fell into the hands of traders who used it to buy or sell stocks in the pre-market, but if so these would likely be seen as a form of “front running” or “insider trading,” both of which are illegal and in the province of the SEC.

Apart from the practical and policy problems with Labor’s new lock-up plan, there is the interesting question of the wisdom in it.  Owing to the growing concern with invasions of privacy by corporations like Google, and governmental bodies like the Department of Homeland Security, why would anyone think this is the right time to formulate a policy that widens further government’s reach, even if benignly, into reporting of the news?

As this note is being written, May 5, there are reports that a coalition of media and "open government" organizations may soon file a letter with the Department of Labor asking that the new policy be delayed until after some further discussion of it with media representatives.

One hopes the coalition will do so, and also that, in step with the “holistic” approach that Fillichio cites no less than three times in the Q&A, the DOL will see the wisdom in stopping, looking, and listening.