Next GPO head must guide agency to the digital future

The public printer's office faces new challenges with old printing skills

The Government Printing Office, which operates one of the world’s largest printing operations, is facing the challenge of maintaining traditional printing skills with an aging workforce while at the same time adapting the 150-year-old office to a world in which most documents are born digital, the president’s choice to head the GPO told a Senate committee today.

William Boarman, a senior official with the Communications Workers of America who worked at the GPO early in his career, was nominated last month as public printer by President Barack Obama. He testified Tuesday before the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

“The GPO today is a substantially different agency compared with the one I left many years ago,” Boarman said. “It employs fewer personnel but is significantly more technologically advanced, and it is responsible for a range of products and activities that could only have been dreamed of 30 years ago: Online databases of federal documents with state-of-the-art search and retrieval capabilities, passports and smart cards with electronic chips carrying biometric data, print products on sustainable paper using vegetable oil-based inks, a management infrastructure supported by the latest IT enterprise architecture, and more.”

Maintaining the ability to cost effectively support both mechanical and electronic missions will be a challenge for the next public printer, he said.

“We have an aging workforce, and this is going to be a critical issue in the coming years,” he said.

A highly skilled workforce now produces daily publications including the Federal Register and Congressional Record in both paper and electronic formats, along with a wide variety of documents and specialty materials such as passports. Losing that expertise without a plan to replace it would be catastrophic, Boarman said. “We need to develop a program to recruit and replace the people we are going to lose in the next three to five years.”

The public printer is required by statute to be a practical printer, and Boarman began his career as an apprentice at the McArdle Printing Co. in Washington in 1966. He worked at the GPO as a journeyman printer from 1974 to 1977, when he left to take a full-time job with the International Typesetters Union, which later merged with the Communications Workers of America. He is a senior vice president of the CWA and since 1989 he has been president of the union’s Printing, Publishing and Media Workers sector.

Technological changes already were under way when he was at GPO, with typesetting and composing moving to computerized photocomposition. Today, GPO oversees production of physical documents containing electronic information, including modern biometric passports that communicate wirelessly with readers. In the last two years, digital documents have become official.

GPO Access has been making publications available online for years on the GPO Web site at, but the electronic copies were posted as a matter of convenience and were not authoritative. It was the paper versions that carried that weight, both physically and legally. In 2008 the proposed federal budget for fiscal 2009 became the first official document to be published electronically. It was produced in a certified PDF format carrying digital signatures embedded using Adobe LiveCycle enterprise suite, which integrates authentication into the document creation process as part of the workflow.

Today, “about 95 percent of all government documents are born digital and will never end up in a Federal Depository Library,” Boarman said.

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He said that Congress will need to revisit the 1962 law now covering the Federal Depository Library Program, in which 1,200 libraries throughout the country hold official documents from GPO. “Their walls are bulging now with books,” and the program will have to adapt to deal with material that increasingly is being produced and accessed electronically.

The current public printer, Robert Tapella, said in a 2008 interview that despite the technological changes, ink-on-paper is not obsolete.

“The real question is, in today’s world what do we need to print and what is better served coming to us in electronic format,” Tapella said. “Do we print and then distribute, or distribute and then print? In the distribute-then-print model you, as the end user, have the cost and obligation of printing it, with toner or inkjet. We are seeing a shift from traditional offset printing to digital technologies because the quantities needed today are being reduced. I think we’re going to see in the not too distant future that digital printing will surpass the traditional offset.”

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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