From Mobile Apps to Marbled Paper: GPO Today

Jim Hamilton
Apr 2, 2012

When I visited Washington last May to testify before a Congressional subcommittee on the Government Printing Office (GPO) I received an invitation to visit their facility at 732 North Capitol Street NW. With Dscoop7 taking place in Washington two weeks ago, I finally had the chance to take them up on their invitation. I recommend that you have a look at the blog I wrote after my Congressional subcommittee testimony. There have been some interesting changes since last May.

First off, William Boarman no longer heads GPO. The Senate did not confirm his appointment as Public Printer. Boarman appointed Davita Vance-Cooks as his deputy shortly before his departure. She has been the acting Public Printer since January. The government’s inability to appoint a permanent GPO head speaks to a level of gridlock in Washington that is extremely discouraging and hard to fathom for anyone living outside the Beltway. Boarman has received lavish praise from some quarters, including a statement in the Congressional Record the day I was there. (See the March 21, 2012 edition, page E399 for these comments by Congressman Steny Hoyer. Others have submitted similar statements.) Vance-Cooks is looking to build upon strategies set in place by Boarman and she appears well positioned to do so, yet why is it so hard to appoint a permanent replacement for this post?

During his testimony last May, Boarman spoke about a planned survey of Congressional offices to quantify their need for printed Congressional Record and other Office of the Federal Register publications. This survey was conducted not long thereafter and elicited a 50% response rate with many respondents choosing to reduce or opt out of the printed publications. A new online portal developed by GPO allows House and Senate offices and committees to update their need for printed publications from GPO. Prior to the survey, GPO printed about 3,600 copies of the Congressional Record. Today, GPO prints 2,900 copies. This is down from around 20,000 in 1994 (a time that predates most of the electronic and mobile delivery options available today).

The replacement that Mr. Boarman sought for GPOs three aging web presses has finally been approved by the Joint Committee on Printing. These Group 86 Hantscho presses, which were installed in 1979, will be phased out. GPO is currently in the procurement process and intends to acquire a high-efficiency shaftless printing press as a replacement.

The number of GPO employees, which was 2,233 last June, has dropped below 2,000 as a result of a buyout offer, retirements, and attrition. This initiative was intended to bring down the number of employees by 15%. As of December 2011 the number of GPO employees was 1,921, the lowest it has been in more than a century. The workforce reductions help to bring down some of GPO’s high overhead, yet there is more to be done. One potential policy proposal was to combine the GPO security force with the Capitol police. That plan is no further along than it was last May due to complexities that could take quite a while to work out. Another attractive move, rental of unused GPO space, has made a small impact so far but should play a larger role moving forward. Even so, the steps that GPO has taken are helping to reign in overhead costs, which had been rising at an unhealthy rate over the past five years.

Overall, printing expenses are under very close governmental scrutiny. When I visited in May, a bill (HR 1246) submitted by Allen West of Florida had proposed reducing Department of Defense printing and reproduction spending by 10%. The bill passed in the House and was referred to the Senate.

In my favorite instance of high-tech irony from the visit, GPO’s in-house IT group was not a stop on my tour. This is the group that recently created its second mobile ‘app’ and found near immediate success with it. This was a Federal Budget mobile app that recorded 55,000 visits on its first day of operation. Despite this early success, the IT department is not part of the public tour. My guides said that it was because a room of servers doesn’t make for that compelling a visit. So instead I was taken to the binding and finishing area where I met perhaps the most unique character of the entire tour: Peter K. James, Head Forwarder. Mr. James, a delightful gentleman with white hair, mustache, and British accent, is responsible for (among other things) the marbling on front papers and book edges. It’s a bit of a psychedelic type of job in quite a conservative application (marbled paper, leather bound books, gold leaf, embossing…you get the picture). He created for me a marbled page (a section of which you can see below). He’s a true craftsman in a time of digital solutions, which I think is a good analogy for all of us. There is a strong need for design and craft even if your application set ranges, as GPO’s does, from the ephemeral U.S. budget application on your mobile device to the heirloom leather bound book that historians will refer to centuries from now.

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