Printer for the 21st century

Bruce James, the nation's public printer, will probably always be remembered for saying, "The 19th century is not coming back." He said that to several thousand U.S. Government Printing Office employees in December 2002 when he met with them during his first 24 hours on the job. Since then, he has repeated it often.

James' account of how he came to be the United States' 24th public printer begins with President Bush, who nominated him. "I'd been retired for about 10 years, so I wasn't the least bit sure that I wanted to put on a white shirt and tie and come to work every day," James said. "I [had already] done that [for] a long time."

But armed with a mission to transform GPO, James has worked successfully with lawmakers, federal officials and librarians, including some who were unaccustomed to his corporate style of management.

Differences of opinion about style disappear, however, when the topic is the substance of James' leadership. Officials at the Government Accountability Office and industry analysts, for example, generally endorse James' strategic vision for GPO. Among other things, he has created a new unit — the Office of Innovation and New Technology — within GPO. He has asked employees in that division to invent a new generation of systems for digital publishing, distribution and preservation.

"He's taking GPO in the direction it needs to go," said J. Timothy Sprehe, president of Sprehe Information Management Associates Inc., a consulting company. "The question I have is: Where's GPO going to get the money?"

The public printer's $25 million request to Congress to pay for the new systems appears likely to be nixed, and James said that if he has to, he will shift resources.

"I'm a team player," he said, "and if there is no money, we will figure out how to work. We will not let this stop us." But, he added, "at some point, we've got to have real money. If there's any money at all, I want our share."

Through partnerships with commercial publishers, James wants to move the agency into customized electronic publishing and create documents on demand by combining information from many government sources. Through partnerships with libraries, he anticipates setting up a computer program to digitize all federal government documents going as far back as the Federalist Papers.

When James arrived at GPO, he faced an immediate crisis. Mitchell Daniels Jr., then director of the Office of Management and Budget, was preparing to instruct executive branch agencies to procure their own printing and bypass GPO. As James saw it, Daniels had declared the office obsolete, which meant James' tenure there would not be one of business as usual.

But instead the crisis gave the new public printer an opportunity to propose dramatic changes. "I didn't understand at the time what a gift he had given me," James said.

In a year and a half, James has improved GPO's efficiency by reducing the number of employees by about 20 percent, from 3,150 to 2,400, by offering some workers early retirement. At the time of the offer, 52 percent of the agency's employees were eligible to retire.

Those who will take the agency into the 21st century, however, are not all younger workers, James said. Many are older employees who want to learn new skills. "Just because somebody's 25 doesn't mean they're any more flexible or adaptable than someone [who is] 65," he said. "It's a matter of attitude."

Skilled printers are not the only people whose jobs will change as GPO employees carry out James' transformation plan. Librarians who provide their expertise in the 1,300 libraries that are part of GPO's Federal Depository Library Program also will see their jobs transform.

"We have spent several generations training librarians all over the nation in the use of government information," James said.

He does not yet know what the librarians' new roles will be when virtually all government information is published on the Internet rather than on paper. But

he knows that the 19th century is not


"We can't sit around and wait for the world to change and go back to what it was," James said. "We've got to understand where the world is going, and then adjust this enterprise."

To that end, James has made decisions that have reduced operating costs and

expanded GPO's contacts with federal agencies. He closed the office's only remaining regional printing plant and 13 bookstores, and reorganized regional offices into business units assigned to specific Cabinet-level agencies for which GPO officials will provide publishing support. He also created a team of 10 national account managers who visit government offices that James calls prospective customers to drum up new publishing business.

Another side of GPO's business, the sale of government documents, has dropped sharply because more organizations and people download free electronic versions from the Internet.

During the past five years, GOP officials reported a

$77.1 million net loss in sales. The most dramatic declines have been in subscriptions to the Federal Register, which GPO publishes daily. Ten years ago, the Federal Register had 35,000 paid subscribers. Today, it has fewer than 2,000.

James said he would like to increase the sales program to bring in $40 million to $60 million a year, a plan that Daniel Barkley, chairman of the Depository

Library Council, called unrealistic. He worries that such a policy could harm the depository library program if customized documents sold for profit are not made available for free through the depository libraries.

Barkley said GPO officials have told him that the depository libraries will continue to get all documents that GPO publishes.

But the controversy, he added, has not been fully resolved. Rather than try to raise unrealistic amounts of money through publication sales, James should ask Congress for more funding, Barkley said. "GPO is not a business," he said, a fact James readily acknowledges.

When James talks about GPO, he speaks with pride about a public institution that at its peak had 10,000 employees and 3,000 Linotype machines.

Because printers work in round-the-clock shifts, the office never closes its doors. "Isn't that the most amazing thing?" he asked.

Born with printer's ink

During an interview with Federal Computer Week in his 651-square-foot office, Bruce James sat relaxed beneath a portrait of Benjamin Franklin and introduced himself by telling a few of his favorite stories.

About his parents: "My dad was a steelmaker. I mean a real one. He put on an asbestos suit when he went to work. My mom was

a homemaker, and they were so convinced that the only way you could control your own destiny was through education."

About how he got his start in printing: "I got interested in printing when I was 11 years old and bought my first printing press. I taught myself how to print. I ended up with offset equipment. I had 18 kids working for me while I was in high school."

About his college years at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York: "That's a Linotype scar from a hot metal squirt that I got when I was in college. I pushed the wrong button."


  • FCW Perspectives
    remote workers (elenabsl/

    Post-pandemic IT leadership

    The rush to maximum telework did more than showcase the importance of IT -- it also forced them to rethink their own operations.

  • Management
    shutterstock image By enzozo; photo ID: 319763930

    Where does the TMF Board go from here?

    With a $1 billion cash infusion, relaxed repayment guidelines and a surge in proposals from federal agencies, questions have been raised about whether the board overseeing the Technology Modernization Fund has been scaled to cope with its newfound popularity.

Stay Connected