Digital Services

GPO rethinks its business model

Shutterstock image (by Nomad_Soul): Silhouette of a businessman in the end of a documents tunnel.

In order to manage costs while expanding its digital footprint, the Government Publishing Office is looking at updating its codified business model.

As GPO tries to balance its duties as Congress’ printer with an increasingly digital presence, agency Director Davita Vance-Cooks proposed at a July 18 House Administration Committee hearing “a careful and thoughtful reevaluation of all chapters of title 44” -- the law that outlines GPO's responsibilities -- in order to “implement all of the digital innovations of recent years.”

Any changes to the law should preserve GPO’s core functions, she added, while allowing GPO “to ensure that federal publications are produced as economically and efficiently as possible, that they remain permanently accessible to the public and that such provisions reflect the shift toward digital while respecting the role of tangible print.”

Committee Chairman Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) agreed that reforms were necessary.

“Technology has definitely impacted this business model,” he said, noting that outdated statutes have hindered GPO’s modernization projects.

One major undertaking for GPO is its ongoing, decade-by-decade digital releases of the congressional record, dating back its inception. GPO has released legislative records as far back as 1950s, and Vance-Cooks said the agency will release the 1940s record “in the first week of August.”

Another undertaking for which GPO is preparing is the conversion of the entire catalogue of the statutes at-large to the U.S. Markup Language data format, a species of XML.

“We are definitely going to be able to carry out the work,” she said, adding that the timeline for the project is “probably sometime in 2018.”

Vance-Cooks said that value for posting this information online in USML format is that anyone “can take the data, they can mash it up and they can create other products.”

The recently passed House appropriations bill, meanwhile, includes a provision that would open up all non-confidential Congressional Research Service reports to the public, directing the Library of Congress to consult with GPO. On that front, Vance-Cooks said GPO is “ready to publish the content” and “is working on cost estimates as we speak.”

Earlier this Congress, Reps. Dave Brat (R-Va.) and Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) reintroduced their Statutes At Large Modernization Act that would make all federal laws ever passed available and publicly searchable on in an open, non-proprietary data format.

That bill would direct GPO to take the lead role in the digitization, and would allocate $5 million annually between fiscal years 2018 and 2022. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has endorsed such legislative transparency in the past, but the bill not yet been taken up by committee.

While digitizing operations has helped reduce GPO’s budget to $117 million from its peak of $140 million, the digital move has presented new costs and risks as well. Two pressing problems for GPO are cybersecurity, on which the agency expects to spend about $2 million this year, and reliance on expensive legacy systems.

Vance-Cooks pointed to millions spent on process changes and digital equipment, as well as maintaining existing systems. “The whole idea is that the cost should go down as you move to digital,” she said, “but what we’re finding is that the start-up of getting into a digital environment is expensive.”

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a former FCW staff writer.


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