How Will GPO Transition to the Future?

Jim Hamilton
May 17, 2011

I was in Washington, DC last Wednesday to testify about the transition to digital in front of a Congressional subcommittee with oversight for the Government Printing Office (GPO). I was also able to sit in on a Congressional budget meeting in which William Boarman, the Public Printer of the United States (and head of GPO), discussed GPO’s 2012 budget. Both of these experiences provided a fascinating look into the way that Congress and GPO operate as well as the challenges they face. The combination of tight budgetary times and the perception that printing is expensive and outdated has prompted Congress to question GPO’s budget. The hearings come at a time when the House of Representatives has passed a bill sponsored by House Representative Allen West (Republican from Florida) to reduce Department of Defense printing and reproduction spending by 10% in fiscal 2012. The bill is currently in the Senate Armed Services Committee for study and consideration.

The morning budget hearing was held in a conference room around a table that could seat 14. Including observers seated around the periphery there were probably forty or so people in attendance. Questions came from Mr. Crenshaw, Mr. Bishop, Mr. Price, Mr. Honda, and Ms. Emerson (all are members of the Appropriations committee). Though Mr. Boarman has only been the Public Printer for about four months he appeared knowledgeable and comfortable under the questioning from Congress during the budget hearing. He was questioned about his staffing levels (he noted that he has not replaced some senior executives who left recently), discrimination complaints (which he hopes can be lowered via mediation), and the need to replace three old presses (he has no funds to purchase replacements and noted that he can’t make purchases more than $50,000 without joint committee approval).

Boarman said that GPO’s overhead is a significant issue, having grown 50% over the past few years. He noted that 33 cents on the dollar in the GPO budget goes to paying overhead costs such as building maintenance and its own police force (which is required to meet some of GPO’s security needs for sensitive documents such as passports). Boarman suggested that making its police force a part of the Capitol Hill police would help, and he noted that the GPO police force was supportive of such a move. He also said that GPO had between 70,000 and 100,000 square feet of building space that could be made available for other purposes. This would be a particularly valuable commodity given its location so close to the Capitol building. The excess space is due in large part to the fact that GPO’s employment levels have dropped from more than 8,000 employees in 1975 to 2,270 now.

Boarman also faced questions about the ratio of prepress versus print cost, which was characterized as 70%/30%. The calculations around this figure go beyond the scope of this blog, but particularly for documents like the Congressional Record it is clear that the process requirements are demanding, time sensitive, and exacting. The levels of accuracy are tested by late submission of information, Congress’s on again/off again schedule, and daily variation in page count (since it isn’t always known in advance how much content will be included).

In point of fact though, the printing that GPO does directly for Congress is a relatively small piece of what they do. There is printing related to high value security work such as passports, but the biggest portion of GPO’s revenue is related to procured print. GPO’s budget document  states that “over 70 percent of GPO’s printing revenue is from agencies for work procured by the GPO to the private sector printing industry through the Print Procurement Program.” (More on this topic below.)

The afternoon session (“How will GPO transition to the future?”) began with testimony from William Boarman. Much of what he said echoed the points he’d made that morning. Testimony from others followed. I was on a panel with Eric Belcher, CEO of Innerworkings, and Dr. Eric Petersen of the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress. A video of the hearing as well as the written testimony of the witnesses (including that of the Public Printer) can be found on the Committee on House Administration’s web site. InfoTrends also submitted an additional statement for the record including back-up statistics to support the brief five-minute testimony. This document is part of the printed record but is not included on the House Administration’s web site.

One statistic that came out of an examination of the documents that GPO prints for Congress is that in the period between 2008 and 2011, GPO’s run length estimates for those documents has dropped by about 18%. In an age of slate computing and e-delivery it is of the utmost importance for Congress and GPO to understand which documents need to stay in print, which ones can go 100% electronic, and which ones need a mix of both methods. For those documents that stay in print, meeting the customer need with the correct run length is important. At one point William Boarman mentioned that GPO was conducting an online document review to assess document users’ needs. This survey should provide much needed insight for GPO’s future document strategy.

My testimony was followed by Eric Belcher of Innerworkings who talked about automating print procurement. Belcher’s key point was that data and information play an important role in efficient print procurement. He stressed that it is impossible to effectively manage a complex and information heavy process without the management visibility and the tracking/reporting capability of a print procurement software tool. Such a tool minimizes errors due to manual processes, allows the mining of historical data, creates competitive bidding situations, and provides accurate reporting. He noted that GPO could take 30% out of the cost of buying print through such a tool. That cost-cutting argument, while very strong in the private sector, is probably secondary to the improved efficiencies that such a tool could provide. Keep in mind that the commercial printers that GPO serves are also the constituents of Congress, and they frequently remind their representatives in Congress how important the GPO work is to them. They would probably not like a more competitive bidding process (including reverse auctions) but they would certainly get behind a more efficient GPO that is able to manage a higher volume of procured print. The fact of the matter is that even though GPO handles hundreds of millions of dollars of print procured through U.S. commercial printers, they could easily be doing more. The inefficiencies of the current process make it so that some government agencies avoid procuring print through GPO (even though they are compelled by law to use them).

GPO’s procurement department handles about 75% of all work sent to GPO for production. This is work that is sent to nearly 17,000 individual firms, many of which, GPO notes, have less than 20 employees. The dollar value of this work amounts to between $450 million and $500 million annually. (Coincidentally, this is about the same as Innerworkings’ 2010 annual revenue.)

The closing testimony by Eric Petersen brought out some interesting points about document access and archival. He noted that only two technologies meet the archival standard of availability and retrievability for 100 years: paper and microfilm. (It should be noted that Boarman’s GPO testimony includes a closing statement about concerns with the permanence of toner and inkjet printed output.) Petersen also notes that some antiquated U.S. laws from the 1960s contain detailed requirements for distribution of paper copies of documents (and little or nothing on digital matters). These, Dr. Petersen suggests, will need to be addressed as part of any discussion of GPO’s digital transition.

By the end of the testimony, it was clear that the challenges facing GPO are daunting. Reducing its overhead and making its procurement processes more efficient are huge undertakings that will have a much larger impact on GPO’s future than the printing of Congressional documents. Another open question remains. Though William Boarman has been approved by President Obama, the Senate has not yet taken action on his appointment. This means that his tenure is not guaranteed beyond this December. The GPO needs strong and consistent leadership during this time of digital transition. The Senate should act to approve Boarman’s appointment, or, if it has legitimate concerns, to move quickly to make those known so that an appropriate replacement can be found.

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