Transforming government printing

Public Printer Bruce James retools GPO's methods while maintaining its mission

Editor's note: Federal Computer Week recently met with the Government Printing Office's senior managers to talk about the agency's future. Executive Editor Christopher J. Dorobek and senior reporter Aliya Sternstein represented FCW.

Representing GPO were Bruce James, public printer of the United States; Robert Tapella, chief of staff; Judith Russell, superintendent of documents; Reynold Schweickhardt, chief information officer; and Michael Wash, chief technical officer.

The following is an edited transcript of that discussion.

Some people think GPO is no longer a viable organization and that we no longer need it. Why do you think we need GPO?

JAMES: That's a question I asked myself when I came to GPO. As you know, information is widely available over the Internet, but what's difficult to know is what is real and what is not. Even if you visit a government Web site and download a document, you have no way of knowing if that document is what the author created.

So the first challenge we have relates to authenticity. We have to find a way to certify that the documents you download from the Internet are authentic and ensure that they remain that way as they are delivered to you from the Web.

The second challenge we have is to save those documents in perpetuity. That's a long time. The business of saving documents on paper is well-established. You can save a document for hundreds of years if it's not exposed to direct sunlight. But in the Digital Age, technology is changing so rapidly that information we published 10 years ago might not be usable today and certainly won't be 10 years from now. We've had to think about how to handle the government's information in a way that we can preserve it in perpetuity.

The third challenge is versioning. In the old days, when you got a government publication, you saw, for example, "April 2004" marked on the cover. Today, with agencies able to update databases all day long, the question becomes, what is a version? What version of government information do you want to save?

In 1895, when Congress established GPO's monopoly on government printing, it did so for a reason. Congress wanted to make certain that all government information was available in at least one place. It was our job to select the documents for public distribution through our Federal Depository Library Program.

But now that agencies can create digital documents and distribute them through their Web sites, GPO's position becomes trickier. We would love for agencies to always send those documents to us automatically so we could catalog them as official government documents, put them in our system and save them.

We expect to create systems and procedures for making it easy for agencies to do that. We realize that getting information to the public is not a primary mission of most agencies. They might not have people knowledgeable about this. We think it's necessary to devise the tools with which we can trawl the Web, identify government documents that belong within the scope of the depository library program, pick those documents up, and then go back and verify their authenticity. We should authenticate them and then make them accessible to the public in perpetuity.

So those are some of the interesting issues we struggle with.

When Congress asks, "Why do we need to spend as much money on printing, on a printing office," what do you say to them?

James: As a matter of fact, it's changing. How we spend money on the Federal Depository Library Program, which Congress has supported all these years, has changed. It used to be that the majority of money went into printed products.

But last year, a smaller percentage of products were printed and distributed using those funds. About 92 percent of all the products we put out went up on the Web. Seventeen percent of those products were also printed on paper. Those that we publish both ways typically are maps or other items that are difficult to publish on the Web.

So what we see is the mix of money changing. We are trying to accomplish all the tasks that we've been given to do within the scope of the funding that we've been given to the Federal Depository Library Program. It's tough. Like every other agency, we would like to have more money, but we recognize our responsibility to prioritize the funds in a way that meets the requirements that Congress has set for us.

Might it be necessary to drop the word "printing" and rename the agency Government Publishing Office or something that more aptly describes what you do?

JAMES: I've thought about it, and I realized that I have larger, more important issues to deal with. The guy or gal who follows me might decide he or she wants to tackle that one. I'm not going to.

How much of your time is spent worrying about electronic materials rather than dealing with the sort of materials the U.S. printer was handling 25 years ago?

JAMES: When I walked through the door here, I gave speeches around the clock. My first one was at 4:00 in the morning, and my last one was at 10:00 at night. I said, "We've got to think about this together. The 19th century is not going to return, so we better put away the idea that things are going to go back to the way they were."

We worked hard that first year. We were bleeding red ink. The shift to digital had occurred so quickly, and folks here hadn't reacted. We had lost $100 million in five years. I came to GPO late in 2002. That first year, we lost $33 million. We addressed those things that had to be changed. The second year we made $11 million. That got the attention of Congress.

We just closed our second year of making money. Now we have the economics straight, and that was very important to do. It was easy to keep spending money the way we always had, which was reinvesting in the 19th century. We stopped that.

GPO has been on the cutting edge of a number of technological advances. Can the same be said of its approach to the Web?

JAMES: In 1993 Congress ordered GPO to put the Congressional Record and the Federal Register on the Internet. We were given the authority to use the Internet to sell information. We initially tried to get subscription revenue from those products. We tried for about a year and a half and realized it was costing us more money to collect the fees. So we just said, "To heck with it. It's free."

Congress authorized Internet publication in 1993, and we did it in 1994. We were ahead of commercial publishers. We have more experience with the Internet than most commercial publishers have. But that information we made available free on the Internet was a byproduct of printing. As we prepared information for printing, we put typesetting codes in it, and that's the reason we can't get some of the search capability that we want for that data now.

We're addressing that problem with a new system. We will have a common set of codes designed to deal with digital data. Then we will repurpose it for printing or typesetting. The data will be published on the Internet automatically.

That's the big challenge as we stop coding data for typesetting and begin coding for the Internet. We want a uniform coding structure for federal documents.

Our readers and government customers have high standards for what they expect to find online. They expect to find information immediately, and they expect to be able to search it.

Have you found that the public's interest in electronic materials is growing?

RUSSELL: That definitely has been the case with a lot of our content. We're selling fewer print subscriptions, for example, but seeing tens of thousands of documents downloaded from the Internet.

When we look at our statistics on the Federal Register, we peaked at 35,000 print subscriptions. We now sell fewer than 2,000, but the public downloads millions of Federal Register documents each month at no charge.

Think about the nature of government material. Most of our stuff is reference- or research-oriented, and it's a whole lot easier to find a regulation with a computer search.

Before you came onboard, GPO had no information technology workforce, and now you have 180 employees. Do you expect that number to grow?

SCHWEICKHARDT: Like a lot of agencies, we have workforce issues. Many employees are eligible to retire. We have a continuing demand for technical and IT people. Part of my challenge is to move the current workforce into new technical areas that we need them to focus on.

We have three major IT programs. One of them is building the future digital system. The second one is transforming GPO's business systems. The third is supporting the conversion to digital information and digital printing systems — all of which have to be integrated internally and, increasingly, with external stakeholders and customers.

Publications like the Congressional Record and the Federal Register have sensitive deadlines. On a typical legislative day, the House might adjourn by early evening. The parliamentarians and staff will stay to work on that day's material and send it over to GPO by about 11:00 or midnight or 2:00 in the morning with the expectation that it will be printed and available electronically first thing the next morning so they can proceed with their business.

Part of the transformation challenge is creating new business processes and accountability. We've got a lot of things we want to accomplish in a relatively short amount of time, and those activities need to be coordinated.

JAMES: Traditional printing is going away. We're printing fewer documents as agencies publish more material on the Web, and the quantities of those print jobs that remain are fewer. But you'd better believe the same guys who used to be the printers doing regular stuff are now the ones who are inserting the chips and doing interesting things as they change their skills.

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