Public Printer Goes to the Hill—GPO at a Crossroads
Barbie E. Keiser
Posted On May 16, 2011
On Wed., May 11, the Public Printer of the U.S., William Boarman, and three others testified before the Subcommittee on Oversight, Committee on House Administration, U.S. House of Representatives. The Government Printing Office (GPO) is the printer of record for Congress and the federal government. As he called the meeting to order, Subcommittee Chairman Dr. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) characterized his hope for the hour: Given our technology-based society, how will GPO continue to serve the Congress and government, and how will GPO transform itself into the modern day information repository and primary-source publisher it should be? What work will GPO be performing in the future, and how? What should their production look like years from now?
These questions and others were to be considered by the Subcommittee as it promotes “a culture of savings over debt” and makes “sure our American taxpayer hard-earned dollars are wisely and frugally allocated.” The Subcommittee reached out to others to provide constructive advice for improving efficiency of operations at GPO. Acknowledging that several proposals are before Congress that will limit the number of print copies of documents, the Chairman is at a loss to determine which make sense. What can we eliminate, he asked?
While in office only since January—an interim appointment by the President who expects confirmation by the full Senate in coming weeks—Boarman noted that:
- Overhead costs at GPO had mushroomed by 50% in the past 5 years
- The Agency was top-heavy with senior-level managers, some of whom travel “excessively” and “astonishingly” often overseas
- Oversight of major essential systems, including Federal Digital System (FDsys) and GPO’s financial systems are in the hands of “expensive contractors”
- Bills for work performed for other federal agencies remain uncollected
Since assuming office, Boarman has cut GPO’s appropriation request for FY2012 by more than $5 million, reduced its annual spending plan by $15 million, reduced the number of senior managers (as well as limiting individual spending authority, especially for travel), consolidated office space (making some real estate available to other areas within the legislative branch), and made the CFO a direct report to the Public Printer in an effort to stem the flow of spending, making GPO an agency that “does more with less.”
In a prepared statement submitted to the Committee, the new Public Printer gave an account of the GPO’s 150 years in operation, the range of materials printed and distributed “with just 2,200 employees.” GPO is charged with several duties: Produce, procure, catalogue, index, authenticate, disseminate, and preserve “the official information products of the U.S. Government” for all three branches of the Federal Government. In addition to printing, GPO has been making documents available online (at no charge) through FDsys and through a network of libraries participating in the Federal Depository Library Program.
Much of Boarman’s testimony dealt with how GPO is increasing productivity and reducing cost to the taxpayer through the provision of public access to the digital databases of congressional information that it creates. The Public Printer pointed to GPO’s collaboration with the Library of Congress in digitizing historical issues of documents previously issued in print format, such as Congressional Record and Statutes at Large. In addition, “the online Federal Register is being made available in extensible markup language (XML) to support bulk data downloads via www.data.gov. (Will that effort be in jeopardy with the anticipated decrease in funding for data.gov and related e-government projects, as highlighted in the NewsBreak on April 11, Got Government Data?)
GPO takes prides in its long-term partnerships with the small businesses to which the Agency outsources its printing to the private sector as well as “some 1,220 public, academic, law, and other libraries located in virtually every congressional district across the Nation” through the Federal Depository Library Program. (Information Today eagerly awaits the final report, Modeling a Sustainable Future for the Federal Depository Library Program in the 21st Century, due to be released later this month, so that it can report on the future of that portion of GPO’s portfolio of responsibilities.) In closing, Boarman assured the Subcommittee that GPO is taking a balanced approach investigating next generation technologies for its production operations to assure that the public’s money is well spent.
The next witness, Eric Belcher, president and CEO of InnerWorkings, Inc., picked up the thread by speaking to the need for streamlining the contracting process. The core competency of InnerWorkings is managing print production for corporations. Belcher made the case for using an order management platform to help make intelligent decisions for bidding out the work, matching job specs to printers, issuing purchase orders, and ultimately invoicing. Doing so, he said, would save 20-30% for any organization that relies on local printers and past relationships to award print job contracts. (The Subcommittee Chairman encouraged Boarman and Belcher to meet and discuss the merits of such a system at GPO.)
James (Jim) Hamilton, group director of InfoTrends, a market research and strategic consulting firm for the digital imaging and document solutions industry, focused his remarks on production printing and publishing as well, stating that “print continues to have significant value as a content delivery method through its physical aspects: Lack of a requirement for an electronic device to read it; the ability to easily archive; annotation; to read without worrying about electricity or battery life; and… the ease of recycling paper… Print is egalitarian in the sense that it doesn’t require high-tech devices or monthly service plans.” In closing, Hamilton recognized GPO’s need to adjust to printing of documents being secondary to information delivery based on the needs of the user—personalized, digital print-on-demand, and timely delivery to mobile devices. Hamilton made one of his company’s reports available to the Committee, Transition to Digital; reports on related topics can be found on the company’s website.
The final witness was Eric Petersen, specialist in American National Government at the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and co-author of the 2009 CRS report (R40897), Congressional Printing: Background and Issues for Congress. Printing, publishing, and information concerns have shifted from mass printing to producing smaller quantities of printed publications. With the emergence of born-digital documents—according to GPO 97% of all U.S. government documents are born-digital, published electronically, available through the internet, and will never be printed—we now have wider availability to the government record than was previously possible via print alone. Eliminating more paper copies by offering additional publications exclusively in electronic format could result in savings, though current law and some user demand require that some print copies be produced and distributed as part of the official record of government proceedings.
In recent months, several initiatives have been introduced by legislators and administrators to “curb the extent of government printing.” Savings may result from these actions, but not nearly as great as some suggest. In addition, reducing the number of print copies will impede access to government materials by individuals who do not have access to (high-speed) Internet, raising questions about the capacity to archive and retrieve the record of government, meaning less transparency in government rather than more.
“At this point, the way forward appears unclear.” Today, GPO is at a crossroads, with obligations to continue to produce print materials in the same manner as it has in the past while transitioning “to an environment where information is collected, authenticated, reproduced, and distributed through an ever growing variety of outlets. Some of the challenges facing the agency appear to include questions about what efficiencies might still be achieved in the short term, as well as a thorough consideration of how the agency might evolve over a longer term.” As new policy is considered, challenges must be faced concerning the following issues:
- Authentication and preservation, “archiving and permanent retention of information in electronic forms”
- Short-term efficiencies and “access to information by those who may not have access to means of electronic distribution”
- Longer-term evolution from print to electronic production and distribution.
Statutory authorities need to address today’s environment; at present, they “do not reach the full spectrum of GPO activities and capacities,” speaking to the more traditional and better known aspects of its work (e.g., printing) while ignoring the changed environment of the public and how it prefers to obtain and use government materials. This hearing dealt almost exclusively with print with only minor reference to the advances made in distribution philosophy with FDsys. Plagued by budget overruns and missed deadlines, FDsys is an enormous step forward in managing information rather than publications as was the purpose of GPO Access.
Petersen’s final point was that GPO’s current business model is “over-reliant on printing as a means of generating income, and there are no explicit provisions to meet the costs of upgrading technological infrastructure.” GPO should explore options and make recommendations to the legislature as to how it feels will be the best way for the federal government to proceed so that the agency can carry out its mandate.
Rep. Charles Gonzales (D-Texas) entered into the record the testimony of Suzanne Sears, assistant dean of public services University Libraries, University of North Texas, on the value of print documents to professional researchers and archivists. In this testimony, she questions the longevity of digital materials, highlighting concerns of depository libraries that sit with diskettes that can no longer work be accessed. GPO can address these concerns, and should do so immediately so that the agency can move forward.
Boarman stated that he has joined a staff that is “dedicated, highly-trained, and committed to GPO’s mission.” How that mission evolves/should evolve and how the agency’s leadership helps current staff to understand the new mission and rededicate themselves to it, providing necessary training (or alternative methods for acquiring the skill sets necessary to operate in this new environment), will be seen as Boarman takes the reins as the Public Printer.