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GPO Seeks Public-Private Partnership
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Posted On April 11, 2005
The U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) offers a wide variety of publications to the public through its Documents Sales programs. These publications include books and pamphlets on starting a business, cooking gadgets, U.S. Census Bureau information, federal benefits for veterans, gardening, aviation, art, the space program, and U.S. history. In the future, these publications may be distributed and made available through bookstores, newsstands, airport kiosks, and other businesses. On April 4, 2005, the GPO announced that it is seeking private sector vendors to partner in expanding access and sales of government information. The request for information (RFI) seeks innovative ideas for transforming the current sales operation (http://www.gpo.gov/bidopps/partnership.html). Responses are due May 4, 2005.

The announcement states: "The GPO is currently evaluating the functions related to its Sales and Agency Distribution Programs and is seeking alternative revenue sharing models that could be provided by the private sector. GPO is interested in increasing public awareness of its products, enhancing customer access for broader dissemination, expanding distribution channels, and utilizing advanced technologies for the sale, production and distribution of print and tangible publications to the public." GPO's primary mission is to ensure public access to government information. The agency is responsible for the production and distribution of information products and services for all three branches of the federal government.

Bruce James, the Public Printer, stated the aim of the program: "Our goal is to increase awareness of government publications by making them available in a commercial mainstream setting, expand distribution channels and use the latest technology, while achieving significant cost reductions. This is a prime example of how the government and the private sector can partner to provide to provide the public greater flexibility in accessing publications found within our sales program."

Last year, the GPO and the 9/11 Commission partnered with W. W. Norton & Company to print and sell the commission's report. Norton sold the report through bookstores around the world. The public obtained copies of the 571-page document without having to wait for the GPO to fill an order and without the inconvenience and expense of downloading and printing a long document. In this partnership, all parties won—the GPO distributed the report to the public with no wait, Norton earned revenue, and the public had immediate access to the printed report. According to Bob Wietrak of Barnes & Noble, the report was "flying out of the stores" several days after it went on sale (USA Today, July 26, 2004).

Currently, there are more than 3,000 publications available from the GPO at an average price of $25. Ninety-five percent of these documents are available online and can be downloaded and printed through GPO Access (http://www.gpoaccess.gov/index.html). The GPO is moving away from offset print and large inventories of print products and is heading toward print-on-demand (POD). The need for inventory adds substantially to GPO's costs. Elimination of inventory will reduce costs while increasing the availability of publications and sales. GPO now has more than 1,600 titles in its POD files.

Judith Russell, Superintendent of Documents, oversees the sales operation. She pointed out that GPO "has many titles that are of broad public interest, but the general public would not necessarily come to GPO." The public may not be aware of the broad range of titles published by the GPO that are of interest. Integrating GPO titles with other similar titles will increase visibility of government activities and publications, create opportunities for private sellers, and increase revenue to offset GPO costs.

The lack of awareness of government publications dampens sales and prevents people from learning about their government and its activities. The private sector could make a difference and increase awareness and learning by marketing and distributing GPO products and services to booksellers and others. The GPO is not in a position to actively market its products and services. People aware of online access to publications or the sales program know how to obtain needed documents. People not aware of the GPO's dissemination services remain uninformed. The private sector has the opportunity to increase awareness, create a new revenue stream, and help keep the American people informed.

Since federal government information is in the public domain, private companies can access and acquire information, add value to it, and sell it. The U.S. Census Bureau's population database is an example of a resource used by hundreds of private companies and individuals to create value for paying customers.

The RFI represents an important opportunity. The RFI states: "Operating as a Government agency, the GPO has been limited in its ability to aggressively promote its information products and services … The GPO has not effectively participated in channels that would help increase visibility and distribution of its offerings to new markets … It is no longer economically feasible for GPO to continue to operate its Sales and Agency Distribution Programs using its traditional methods. Therefore, GPO is seeking alternative models for its Sales and Agency Distribution Programs that could be provided by innovative relationships with the private sector."

Generally, private industry has not been involved in the distribution of government publications. While the plan envisaged by the GPO and noted in the RFI will not give industry a monopoly, it does represent an important opening for private business to participate in the distribution and sale of government information. The plan does not preclude the public from downloading and printing needed or wanted documents. The marketing, distribution, and sale of the 9/11 report demonstrated that the market for government information exists and that partnerships can be beneficial to all.


Miriam A. Drake is professor emerita at the Georgia Institute of Technology Library.

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