GPO evolves from printing press to digital platform

Wednesday - 6/15/2011, 7:33pm EDT

By Jolie Lee
Federal News Radio

Throughout its 150-year history, the Government Printing Office has transformed the way it publishes government information to keep pace with the technology of the time.

The agency that is responsible for publishing daily the Federal Register and the Congressional Record has shifted with every major advancement of the printing era - from manual type to machine type to computers.

GPO started in "a horse and buggy era and now we're in a space age situation here," said Public Printer Bill Boarman.

Its mission is to keep the public informed and that mission hasn't changed throughout the decades.

To the space age

In 1993, Congress charged GPO with also providing electronic access to government information.

A decade later, GPO launched the Federal Digital System (FDsys), the database that houses online documents. GPO also shares its legislative information with the Library of Congress and Thomas.gov. Today, 70 percent of GPO's work is online. The agency's role as a digital platform is a fact that Boarman said much of the public probably does not know.

"Our main focus moving forward is the digital age and providing information online to citizens free of charge and so Congress can use it as well," Boarman said.

The busiest times at the printing plant are when Congress is in session, Boarman said. Sometimes GPO does not receive the manuscripts until 2 or 3 a.m. but still is able to get the information online first thing in the morning, he said.

When Congress is "really rocking and rolling and meeting around the clock night and day, this place is just crazy," Boarman said. "I mean, our people work. Some come in and they stay here and never go home."

A new kind of printing

Although it has moved toward online publishing, GPO still does a lot of printing in the form of secure identification documents. GPO prints passports for the State Department and Homeland Security Presidential Directive-12 cards (HSPD-12) for government employees and contractors. In May, it reached a milestone of printing 1 million cards for Customs and Border Protection's Trusted Traveler Program.

GPO began producing electronic secure ID cards in 2006 with the e-passport, the paper document with a security chip embedded inside, said Steve LeBlanc, managing director for security and intelligent documents at GPO.

The e-passport introduced another phase to GPO's evolution. "We went from traditional printing and binding to essentially the manufacture of an electronic-component end product," LeBlanc said.

With the new product came new processes, equipment, skills for the workforce and security issues. GPO has its own police officers on-site, and entry into the secure ID production areas requires biometrics and other security procedures, LeBlanc said.

GPO is also building a laboratory to test the products it makes, an alternative to hiring a contractor to do the tests, LeBlanc said. The lab is expected to begin work this summer, he said.

Paper printing's future uncertain

The Obama administration is pushing agencies to cut wasteful spending. In a June 13 video message, the President specifically pointed to the paper printing of the Federal Register as an example of a wasteful expense.

However, Boarman said he does not think ink-on-paper printing will go away altogether - at least not anytime soon.

"I don't think Congress is prepared for a paperless society," Boarman said. "They'll be moving in that direction in maybe five years, maybe ten years. But they still need the paper documents ... we provide them every day in order to effectively legislate."

Boarman himself is a printer by trade. In the 1970s, he worked for a few years as a printing apprentice before leaving to become a union leader. When he returned to GPO this year, Boarman said he noticed the biggest change was the size of the workforce.

Thirty-five years ago, 8,000 people were on staff. Technology has shrunk the workforce to 2,200 today. GPO is planning to further reduce the workforce by 15 percent through buyouts anticipating lower appropriations than the $147.5 million received this year.

Despite the workforce shrinkage from decades ago, GPO is still able to produce more work than it has in the past, Boarman said.

As GPO has changed its identity, talk has emerged of changing the agency's name to the Government Information Office or the Government Publications Office.

Boarman said there is currently no "real serious discussions" about a name change but it may be the next step for GPO if it is to continue to move forward.

At the same time, Boarman added, "There's something romantic about a printing office to me."


Check out the rest of the 150 Years at GPO series.