Sprehe: The e-GPO

It is an interesting concept -- a printing agency where documents are never printed.

Public Printer Bruce James recently announced the Government Printing Office's budget request for fiscal 2005. He said GPO will invest in new technology to transform the agency "into a 21st-

century digital information processing facility." He spoke of digital documents and a different type of information dissemination system.

James referred to a printing agency where documents "will never be printed, except on demand and as needed."

It is an interesting concept — a printing agency where documents are never printed. Statements like these make you ask why the government needs a printing agency at all.

I praise and respect the public printer. Last year, he made peace with a belligerent Office of Management and Budget through negotiation and conciliation. He has taken significant strides toward modernizing GPO's technology base, and GPO Access is one of the best federal information portals.

Still, questions about GPO remain. Who remembers that in 1991 the agency published a document titled "GPO/2001: Vision for a New Millennium"? The public printer at the time, Robert Houk, in the preface wrote, "In the coming years, GPO will be transformed from an environment dedicated to traditional print technologies to an integrated information-processing operation distinguished by the electronic creation, replication and dissemination of information."

Are we there yet? The 1991 document was dead on arrival, buried and never spoken of again. It died because management had prepared its vision without getting support from GPO's labor unions. The vision clearly entailed fewer union jobs. Will James' brave words suffer the same fate?

The agency also shows significant evidence of mission creep. James spoke of "the versioning, authentication and preservation of the digital record of the American government in perpetuity."

That's peculiar. Most of us think the National Archives and Records Administration is charged with preserving the digital record of the U.S. government. Everyone knows NARA is in the midst of developing the Electronic Records Archives, a program for the long-term preservation of digital federal records. The Library of Congress also has its National Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program. How did GPO get into this act?

I cannot recall anything in GPO's enabling statutes that calls for the agency to undertake perpetual preservation of government documents. One would think perpetual preservation is a contagious disease that the agency has somehow caught.

Finally, Web publishing is already widespread and maturing in federal agencies, e-government portals abound, and FirstGov is firmly established. I cannot help asking, as I did after GPO/2001 came out, why the government needs to spend millions of dollars on another information dissemination utility such as the one James proposes.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates Inc. in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jtsprehe@jtsprehe.com.

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