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Is the GPO Endangered?
Posted On August 5, 2002
Ironically, in an age when information and knowledge are valued as highly as economic assets, the executive branch of the federal government is issuing directives that would impede access to government information and limit its distribution. On May 3, Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), issued a memorandum to the heads of executive departments and agencies directing them to select printing services on the basis of "quality, cost, and time of delivery." The directive proclaimed, "The time has come for the Executive Branch to liberate its agencies from a monopoly that unfairly penalizes both taxpayers and efficient would-be competitors." The memo indicated that agencies may print in-house, use the Government Printing Office (GPO), or purchase printing from private contractors. Agencies are directed to submit an annual report to the OMB on the cost of printing and duplication operations. The memo did not specify how these costs were to be calculated.

The proposed policy change raises many questions for which there are no easy or ready answers. For example, who will be responsible and accountable for archiving, cataloging, and ensuring access to executive branch documents?  How will people and libraries be notified about their publication?  How will they be distributed and sold?  Currently, the Superintendent of Documents is responsible for the sale of documents and their distribution to the depository libraries. Documents are distributed through the GPO.

In his memo and testimony before the Joint Committee on Printing (JCP) at hearings held in mid-July, Daniels indicated that the GPO's monopoly on government printing results in inefficient and costly services. OMB estimates that the surcharges levied by the GPO when it contracts agency printing with private companies amount to $50-$70 million per year and that these amounts could be saved if each agency handled its own printing.

Title 44, section 501 of the United States Code states that all "printing, binding, and blank-book work for Congress, the Executive Office, the Judiciary, other than the Supreme Court of the United States, and every executive department, independent office and establishment of the Government, shall be done at the Government Printing Office." Over the years the JCP has granted waivers and exceptions to the GPO printing requirement.

The OMB memo recommends that the Federal Acquisitions Regulatory Council issue rules to implement the new printing policy and that all departments and agencies subject to Federal Acquisition Regulations should comply with the new rules, once issued. All other executive branch departments and agencies are expected to comply with the policies set forth in the memo by September 1. It's not clear when the Federal Acquisition Rules (FAR) will be issued. Patrice McDermott, from the ALA's Washington office, believes there will be a period for public comment on the proposed FAR.

Section 1902, Title 44 states that government publications should be made available to Federal Depository Libraries through the Superintendent of Documents, the official responsible for their distribution and sale. In his testimony, Michael DiMario, the current Public Printer, stated that the GPO distributed 5.9 million copies of 14,700 titles to the depository libraries in FY2001. While sales are declining due to the Internet, GPO sales of publications to academe, business, and others reached $40 million.

In his testimony, Daniels said, "In announcing our new policy freeing up the procurement of printing, we reminded agencies of their ongoing responsibility to make documents available to the Federal Depository Library Program, including when private printers are used." In his memo, Daniels relegated the depository library requirement to a footnote.

Saving taxpayers' money on printing is important. However, it's difficult to foresee the projected savings from the decentralization of printing if the GPO's level of dissemination is maintained—specifically to depository libraries. Each of the 130 executive agencies with their many departments will have to negotiate printing contracts with private companies. The OMB memo does not specify how printing costs should be calculated. Do they include the cost of copies for the depository library program? If the GPO no longer catalogs the documents, what centralized inventory database will replace this activity and what will that cost? What administrative costs will be incurred in a decentralized printing system? If all costs are considered, how much money will be saved?

The implications and possible consequences of the OMB proposal go beyond procurement. Decentralized printing and dissemination of government information will make information inaccessible and more difficult to obtain. If the GPO does not have copies of printed and electronic publications, it cannot catalog these materials, disseminate them, or let people know they exist. If publications are not submitted to the GPO, information discovery will become far more costly for users. People will be forced to search many sites to find needed information.

Julia Wallace, a librarian at the University of Minnesota, expressed concern about "fugitive" documents in her JCP testimony. "There is no question that the OMB memorandum will result in more fugitive government publications. Despite the requirements for agency dissemination in Title 44, it has been estimated that 50 percent of the government publications that executive branch agencies print today are fugitive." These publications are not available to GPO for cataloging and distribution. People are denied access because they have no easy way to find out about the existence of documents.

Over the years the JCP has granted waivers and exceptions to the provisions of Title 44, permitting some agencies to print their documents. Francis J. Buckley, Superintendent of Documents, said he does not believe that publications produced under the proposed policy change will reach distribution to the depository libraries. This is based on his experience with the poor performance in this area by agencies with JCP waivers. While fugitive documents are a serious issue, the implications of the proposed policy are more dangerous and threatening.

The OMB memo may represent the first step in closing the door to executive branch information. The move is reminiscent of the attempts by both the Reagan and Clinton administrations to curb GPO activities. As in the past, the nonpartisan issue focuses on which branch of government will control the publication of government information. However, this time it's different. Previous efforts offered the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) as an alternative agency for handling the archiving and distribution of executive branch documents. There are no indications that the current scheme involves NTIS, an agency that's still recovering from attempts to disband it. The proposed policy offers no alternative to publication by NTIS or GPO and leaves the responsibility for publication and distribution to each agency.

Without information produced by the executive branch, people are penalized in their work, research, education, general knowledge, and ability to judge the performance of their government. William Boarman, vice president of the Communications Workers of America, summarized the concern in his JCP testimony: "By far, the most significant damage resulting from OMB's proposal would be the effect it would have on GPO's capability for ensuring citizen access to government information. For GPO, dissemination of government documents is a nonpartisan, virtually automatic process, which has been enhanced in recent years by expanded reliance on the Internet and other new technologies. That function is consistent with constitutional ideals, democratic principle, and the purposes and functions of Congress."

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

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