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Hard work on tough issues goes unread

– What if someone had already figured out the answers to the world’s most pressing policy problems, but those solutions were buried deep in a PDF, somewhere nobody will ever read them?

According to a recent report by the World Bank, that scenario is not so far-fetched. The bank is one of those high-minded organizations – Washington is full of them – that release hundreds, maybe thousands, of reports a year on policy issues big and small. Many of these reports are long and highly technical, and just about all of them get released to the world as a PDF report posted to the organization’s website.

The World Bank recently decided to ask an important question: Is anyone actually reading these things? They dug into their website traffic data and came to the following conclusions: Nearly one-third of their PDF reports had never been downloaded, not even once. Another 40 percent of their reports had been downloaded fewer than 100 times. Only 13 percent had seen more than 250 downloads in their lifetimes.

Since most World Bank reports have a stated objective of informing public debate or government policy, this seems like a pretty lousy track record.

Now, granted, the bank isn’t Buzzfeed. It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect thousands of downloads for reports with titles like “Detecting Urban Expansion and Land Tenure Security Assessment: The Case of Bahir Dar and Debre Markos Peri-Urban Areas of Ethiopia.” Moreover, downloads aren’t the be-all and end-all of information dissemination; many of these reports probably get some distribution by email, or are printed and handed out at conferences.

Still, it’s fair to assume that many big-idea reports with lofty goals to elevate the public discourse never get read by anyone other than the report writer and maybe an editor or two. Maybe the author’s spouse. Or mom.

I’m not picking on the World Bank here. In fact, it’s to be commended, strongly, for not only taking a serious look at the question but making its findings public for the rest of us to learn from. And don’t think for a second that this is just a World Bank problem. PDF reports are basically the bread and butter of Washington’s huge think-tank industry, for instance. Every one of these groups should be taking a serious look at its own PDF analytics the way the bank has.

Government agencies are also addicted to the PDF. As The Washington Post reported a week ago, federal agencies spend thousands of dollars and employee hours each year producing congressionally mandated reports that nobody reads. And let’s not even get started on the situation in academia, where the country’s best and brightest compete for the honor of seeing their life’s work locked away behind some publisher’s paywall.

Not every policy report is going to be a game-changer, of course. But the sheer numbers dictate that there are probably a lot of really, really good ideas out there that never see the light of day. This seems like an inefficient way for the policy community to do business, but what’s the alternative?

One final irony to ponder: You know that World Bank report, about how nobody reads its PDFs? It’s only available as a PDF. Given the attention it’s receiving, it may also be one of its most downloaded reports ever.

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