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GPO’s Mission Is Validated by an Independent Study
Posted On February 21, 2013
Every 5 years or so, Congress or an individual member of Congress decides it is time to study the Government Printing Office (GPO). The studies usually focus on the mission of GPO, cost savings, and the process of shifting printing to private industry or the federal agencies. Often Congress seems to forget that most of the printing done by GPO is contracted out to private companies and that U.S.C. Title 44 mandates that agencies procure printing through GPO.

The latest study, "Rebooting the Government Printing Office: Keeping America Informed in the Digital Age," was performed by the National Association of Public Administration. The report “affirms GPO’s mission of authenticating, preserving, and distributing Federal information.” The report also recommends measures to strengthen the agency’s business model and activities for the future. Acting Public Printer, Davita Vance-Cooks said, “GPO is committed to its mission of Keeping America Informed and will continue to transform to meet the changing needs of Congress, Federal Agencies, and the public.”

I discussed the report and some of its recommendations with the Superintendent of Documents, Mary Alice Baish. She pointed out that GPO is a unique agency. There are no other agencies like it. The agency serves the Congress, federal agencies, libraries, and the public. Baish indicated that the GPO and study team worked together: “Most of the unit directors had two long interviews with the NAPA folks. They wanted to understand the issues.” They also interviewed GPO union representatives, Congressional representatives, agency customers, library community stakeholders, and various experts. Baish added that the NAPA team requested and received extensive data on GPO operations and finances.

The key themes included the following:

1) In the digital age, the federal government must continue to ensure that the public has permanent access to authentic government information. This will require coordination across the federal government in managing the lifecycle of digital government information.

2) GPO has a critical role to play in providing permanent public access to authentic information. Like the rest of the printing industry, GPO faces challenges in the transition to digital publishing, but its responsibilities are far broader than a private commercial vendor. Other themes related to a content-centric focus, cost reductions, strategic planning, and human capital planning.

One recommendation is, “To enable the federal government to carry out its role of providing information to its citizens, Congress should establish a collaborative interagency process, and designate a lead agency or interagency organization to develop and implement a government-wide strategy for managing the lifecycle of digital government information.” Baish said, “This is a very good recommendation.” She pointed out that agencies are not required to archive everything on their websites and they should be responsible for permanent public access.

Another recommendation relates to historical documents and preservation. “To safeguard the historical documents of our democracy for future generations, GPO should work with depository libraries and other library groups to develop a comprehensive plan for preserving the print collection of government documents.” Baish said, “We have a number of formal partnerships with depository libraries, agencies, and the U.S. courts to obtain their digital content.”

Several recommendations concerned cost recovery, cost reduction, and expansion of the sales program. The report included a controversial recommendation concerning cost recovery from GPO Federal Digital System ( “FDsys, like all government IT programs, is dependent on sustained appropriations. (Currently, GPO is providing FDsys services to executive branch agencies and the public free of charge.) However, given the unique role of FDsys in providing permanent public access to authentic government information, it is imperative for GPO to secure long-term, consistent funding for FDsys through cost recovery and/or appropriation to ensure current and future access to government information.”

Baish pointed out “When GPO Access was launched in 1994, GPO charged users for access to digital content. The problem was that the administrative costs of collecting payments were higher than what GPO could charge. Also, there was resistance from public interest groups and other stakeholders. Free access to government information is an important tenet of a democracy. However, GPO has always charged for printed publications to recoup costs.” The report noted, “In addition, access to FDsys content could be provided free of charge through the depository libraries, similar to how the public can access print documents through the libraries free of charge. Now may be the time for GPO to revisit charging the public for access to FDsys content.” The report neglects to point out that many people access FDsys directly and do not go through libraries.

Baish said that one option to recoup costs would be to charge agencies to authenticate and add documents to FDsys. Charging for public access would be unacceptable to libraries, nonprofit groups, citizen groups, and the public. Free access to government information is essential for learning, democracy, science, technology, and business, and it is an established practice.

NAPA recommended that GPO expand its sales efforts and look at new markets. “To ensure the Publication and Information Sales Program continues to play a role in information dissemination and is able to recover costs, GPO should continue to aggressively research and expand into new markets.” GPO has taken steps to expand its market with several partnerships for the distribution of ebooks. These partnerships include Google, Barnes & Noble, and Apple iBookstore. These outlets and others to come will expand access to government ebooks and provide additional channels for the public to acquire government information.        

I asked Baish about other concerns. She said, “One of our concerns is with the sequestration on March 1, the Continuing Resolution on March 27, and the deadline for the debt ceiling in May. Like every other federal agency we are concerned about what those cuts may be.” She added, “In addition to the cuts in our appropriations, we are concerned that one of the things agencies may cut is their print because we are dependent on the funding of other agencies.”

All government agencies are required to produce strategic plans with goals, objectives, and paths to achieve the goals. Uncertain funding makes it impossible for agencies to plan with any confidence. The agencies and the public will benefit when Congress concludes the current fiscal game and gives agencies the appropriations they need to continue to achieve their missions and accomplish goals and ensures that GPO can continue to provide permanent and free public access to government information.

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

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