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Magazines > Searcher > September 2003
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Vol. 11 No. 8 — September 2003
New Life for GPO: Interview with Bruce R. James, Public Printer of the U.S.
by Miriam A. Drake, Professor Emerita

OMB and GPO Agree on Government Printing

In May 2002 Mitchell Daniels, Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), sent a memo to government agencies and departments directing them to contract with private printing firms for their printing. This directive was in violation of U.S. Code Title 44 that specifies that the Government Printing Office (GPO) will print all government documents.

On June 6, 2003, Daniels and James (Public Printer) announced an agreement whereby agencies and departments can comply with Title 44 and negotiate with private printers. The agreement specifies that all print ordering and invoicing will be done through GPO. All print vendors will be required to submit one electronic copy and two paper copies to GPO before they can be paid. These submissions will be used to supply documents to the Depository Library Program and the Sales Program. In addition, the required copies will reduce the problem of fugitive documents and ensure that more documents will be sent to Depository Libraries.

[See "Government Printing Tug of War Continues,"
, and "GPO and OMB Compromise on Agency Printing,"

Bruce R. James became Public Printer of the United States in January 2003. He was recruited out of retirement by President Bush to head the Government Printing Office (GPO). Mr. James has founded and managed printing companies in the U.S. and other parts of the world, pioneering in the use of technology to enhance and improve printing operations.

I interviewed Bruce James in his office on April 28, 2003. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Drake: How do you see your job? What are your hopes and dreams for GPO?

James: I walked in the door the first day . . . they gave me this key. "What's that for? 'It's the key to your office.' I run the joint. Don't I get a key to the front door too? 'Mr. James, there's not been a lock on the front door since 1861. We have never been closed.'"

That was my introduction to my first day on the job.

I wanted to talk to all of our employees because I knew they wanted to see who was going to run the place. They probably wanted the chance to ask me some questions. So five meetings were scheduled at different times of the day and night. I started by saying that the 19th century is not going to return. We are going to move on to the 21st century. Initially, I said to some people that we have some very modern machinery here. We have to have modern ways.

In fact, the GPO that I inherited is a 19th-century structure with a factory mentality to it. A lot of that mentality began to stand in the way of really seeing what was happening in information and seeing where trends in information collection and delivery are going. I wanted to change the climate and to get people to open up their minds. The interesting thing is, I have found that the vast majority of our workforce absolutely agrees with me. They have been very supportive of our early efforts.

In the second week on the job I said to the staff, "In our organizational structure we have 21 people reporting directly to the Public Printer; everyone from the guys who clean the floors to the Superintendent of Documents. It is impossible to manage an organization with this kind of configuration. I need you all to redesign the organization." One of the them said, "Mr. James, just tell us what you want to do and we'll do it."

I said, "No, no. You run the place. You've been here before me. You will be here long after me. You're the ones who have to redesign the organization. We don't have to worry about it working forever. We need it to work for the next couple of years."

One of my bright young people oversaw the reorganization exercise. We called our executives together to view the new organization. I asked, "Does everyone agree with this? Is this the best we can do? Shall we keep working on it?" Not a single hand went up. I said that you mean you all support it and every head in the room shook up and down.

We began to look at how we were going to fill the boxes that were created. Some slots were filled from the inside. For some slots, we have gone outside. It is a marriage of people that know GPO, how it works, its traditions, the laws, and customer requirements and people who don't know how government works, but understand where the commercial information world is. By putting these people together to transfer knowledge from commercial people to the GPO, I think we could move forward pretty rapidly.

What I see happening is the trend toward digital information continuing to accelerate. I told the depository librarians in Reno last week that I wouldn't be surprised if in 5 years the government is delivering 95 percent of documents only in digital form. Some people think that means we will be out of the printing business. We print a lot of utility documents that have nothing to do with documents we deliver to depository libraries. We certainly will have a lot of utility printing. The main documents that the libraries are used to receiving will be migrating toward digital form.

Digital information raises some issues. These issues brought me out of retirement. I was happily retired for 10 years. I had no intention of ever going back to work again. People wonder why would I leave a life everybody aspires to get to? Go back to work for the government for the first time in my life and move to Washington, D.C.? It is the challenges associated with digital information for the government and the permanent public access to information that I find to be so intellectually challenging.

A couple of months ago I had a conversation with some friends of mine, experts in the business of magnetic data. I asked, "If the Federalist Papers had been done in magnetic media, do you think they would be around today?" Of course they sort of laughed at me and took a deep breath and said, "Well. if the papers had been done that way 10 years ago, they probably would be gone today."

How are we going to ensure that we can preserve digital information in perpetuity? There are lots of issues we need to address and solve. I see these as a combination of both technical issues and business issues. You have to make some business decisions, probably before you make the technical decisions. You have to make the business decisions about what you are going to do. We are getting our arms around these issues and getting the right people in place within our organization. We are beginning to build the relationships with outside businesses, universities, and other government agencies.

My guess is that when you come back 2 years from now you will find that we have completely repositioned the GPO to be a 21st century information business. I think this organization in 2 years will be the leading technology organization in the world in digital applications. If I can accomplish that, I'll feel good about coming out of retirement.

Drake: In your Senate testimony you talked about taking the "P" out of GPO. Tell me what you were thinking.

James: I am trying to understand the roots of the GPO. It is clear that our roots go back to 1813. Congress decided that they wanted to have permanent public access to government information. They wanted to make sure that the government couldn't hide information. In 1857, the distribution of documents was transferred to the Department of the Interior. The Government Printing Office came along later in 1861. One purpose was to get rid of the graft and corruption surrounding government printing. In 1895, Congress moved the public access function to the GPO, too, so we've had that function for a long time.

I look at this history and think the most important part of my job is collecting information from government departments and agencies, cataloging that information, distributing it widely throughout America, and permanently preserving it. That's my job. The fact that a piece of paper has to pass through a printing press is completely incidental to that job.

When I talk to people, sometimes our middle name gets in the way of understanding our true mission. Whether I am going to propose to change the name of the organization or not depends on the people here. If they feel it is in our best interests I will go along with it.

Drake: Tell me about the status of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) situation.

James: Before I was sworn into office I went to meet with Mitch Daniels (director of OMB) on two issues: one was the President's budget and second were the issues surrounding his decision to position himself differently from Congress on the issue of where the government's printing should be done. I offered him a way that Ithought was an intelligent way to address the President's budget. He ended up going along with that suggestion. We ended up producing the budget here. We shook hands as the first copy came off. I believe he was very satisfied. I believe that his staff was satisfied. I proposed to him at the time that rather than tear apart the system we have, while it may be flawed, we're probably better off looking together at how to fix it.

I now know enough to understand what the issues are and to be able to sit down, have an intelligent conversation, and suggest ways that we can work together. He has his own agenda. It is hard to fault the man responsible for saving the taxpayers' money. I am fully supportive of his intentions to save money. In this particular case, I am not sure if what he is proposing will save the taxpayers' money and it could well damage a system that has been effective since almost the beginning of the country.

I have received good and strong support from members of Congress thanks to our librarian partners who have been communicating their views very clearly to Congress. This has been an enormous help to me. I think communications with OMB will help me too, because Director Daniels specifically mentioned how upset librarians were about the changes in the department. He did not understand that there was a constituency out there that felt that strongly about it.

Drake: The OMB approach of allowing each agency to print its own documents would exacerbate the problem of fugitive documents. There are exceptions and exemptions to Title 44 resulting in fugitive documents not distributed to Depository Libraries. How are you going to deal with that issue?

James: It is our impression that the executive branch agencies that engage in printing are experiencing a change in workload in their printing plants. There is less and less printing as more and more documents are distributed electronically. These plants generally are small in nature and they don't have a big perspective of what's happening in the printing industry and even what is happening some times in their own organization.

We are going hand in glove with efforts to look at government printing operations. We are very much in favor of the General Accounting Office (GAO) study of printing operations. We are not only cooperating and working very closely with Congress and the GAO, we're also conducting some of our own studies to make certain that we understand the facts surrounding this business today.


General Accounting Office (GAO) Study of Government Printing

The Senate Appropriations Committee in its report on Legislative Appropriations for FY2003 (Senate Report 107-209, directed the General Accounting Office (GAO) "to conduct a comprehensive review and assessment of the current state of printing and dissemination of Federal Government information, with special emphasis on GPO's congressional printing and binding services, the Federal Depository Library Program, and contracting out executive branch printing. This assessment should include an examination of Federal agencies' current printing needs and requirements; their assessments of the costs and benefits of using GPO for printing needs; the extent to which agencies bypass the requirement to use GPO without appropriate waivers; an inventory of agencies' large-scale printing/copying equipment; the appropriateness of GPO charges to agencies. . . ."

The GAO's findings and recommendations are due to the Committee by December 1, 2003.

Drake: How will you deal with the commercial information industry? Not the printing industry, the information content industry?

James: Part of what we want to do is to establish what are legitimate government functions. What should the government be doing and never give up? We'll talk to stakeholders about that. I think we should have been out engaging in conversation with the information industry years ago to look at how we could do more partnering. We have the information. We don't manipulate the information. We don't do all the things the private sector does. But it may be that we could develop a series of partnerships that make it easier, faster, less expensive for them to publish. I have not yet begun to explore that.

We started to develop thoughts a little bit at the Depository Library Council meeting in Reno. [The Federal Depository Library Council met in Reno Nevada on April 10, 2003.] I tried that idea on the audience there of almost 400 librarians who initially told me that all government information should be free and they were standing up waving the banner. I said, "Government information has never been free. We sell government information. Nothing about government is free." If we could figure out how to sell the information on the Internet we would, but we can't because nobody wants to buy it. We'll continue to make that general information available for free as far as I can see in the future.

We certainly want to be looking at how to add products that we could do in partnership with the private sector. We don't know what those might look like, what they might feel like. We certainly won't do anything without talking with the community about it. But I think people were supportive of the idea. Anything we can do to keep our costs down and continue to furnish material to the depository libraries for free we will do. One of the schemes we talked about may be if information was available on some kind of pay site that depositories would get it for free. So there would be a reason for people to come to depository libraries with free access to information. Those are the kinds of models we would like to look at along with the community and see what makes sense.

To some extent I am trying to figure out how to keep the depositories alive, too. We're beginning to carry on discussions with people about what kinds of products we need to make searchable. For stuff that exists only in microfiche today, what kinds of investments do we need to make in the near future and far future to get digital searchable databases? Where is the money going to come from to do that? Can we do that in partnership with the library community? With the private sector, library community, and government? We don't know.

I am not of a mind to really rush this. I want to make sure that we all really understand it. I want to make sure we're all in agreement. I also want to have a planning team. I don't want to have an outsider do the planning. As we do the plan, we'll incorporate all of our stakeholders in the planning process. We are beginning to educate and train people in here on how to develop a strategic plan.

Drake: You mentioned other agencies and sharing things with them. There now is little sharing. A piece of software developed in one agency couldn't be used in another agency. I think you are telling me that you want to change that. How do we get government agencies to stop competing with each other?

James: I look at the agencies as my brothers and sisters. I treat them that way. As a consequence, I get treated back that way, too. I was as shocked as you are coming in the door and realizing that this is such an insular organization. They didn't have partnerships with other agencies. They didn't have partnerships with the printing industry. The only partnerships they had were with the libraries.

The first thing I did was create an office of innovation and new technology. That office will be staffed by both GPO people as well as outside experts. Their job is to cut through the red tape, get quick answers in some of these areas like digitization and preservation of data outside of the typical government structure. We are establishing a new products group within the purchasing group whose job it is to deal with vendors to GPO and look for better, smarter ways of doing things.

What else we can bring to our customers? We feel pretty strongly at the end of the day we probably are going to have to offer a print-on-demand capability to our agency customers. We're looking at how we are going to do that. How we are going to educate the people who used to be the printing specialists into teaching agencies how to prepare for a digital database that we then can output from to create copies, as they are needed.

Drake: How can the private sector help you with regard to archiving and preservation? Is there room for the private sector in advising or providing software?

James: You betcha. I ask the leader of every large company that I come across to find ways to partner with us. I tell them I want their leading-edge technology at GPO. I want to do alpha testing, which means that their engineers are here with my engineers. We can discover together how to make some of these new technologies operate. I want the GPO to be the leading technology shop in the world in 2 years. I want to implement technologies that will take us into the future. I am getting a very good response.

We are looking at how we can help the industry to establish worldwide standards and open systems that would allow us to automate the process of printing for our agency customers. The GPO had not been involved in standards setting for years. We need standards to advance technology.

Meanwhile, we are out recruiting on college campuses for the best and brightest kids we can find. Traditionally, we hired out of printing schools with 3.5 grade point averages and above. This year we are looking at mathematicians, physicists, chemists, computer scientists, and computer engineers. I've got two Ph.D. chemists here. They are paper chemists. I do not need more paper chemists. I need people who can look at the new substrates I am recording on and help guide us and lead us into magnetic media. We need different kinds of people in this organization. We're going out and getting them, and I am having no trouble finding people to come to work for us. Particularly when I go out and make speeches, they can't wait to come to work for us. I want to identify people who will change the world. I know that I cannot keep them forever. If I can get 5 good years out of them, make this their first job, give them a really exciting experience where they feel that they help serve a public purpose, it is a wonderful thing. Wonderful for the kids. Wonderful for us.

Drake: What is your own personal commitment? Are you here to see the whole process through?

James: I told the President that I would be here 3-5 years. Even though in the private sector I could complete this planning process in about 90 days, I thought it might take as long as a year here. It will take 6 months or so or as much as a year to complete the overall strategic plan. At least a year to implement it. It could take as long as 3 years before I am comfortable that it is really going, that we have worked out the bugs that will occur, and that I've got folks here absolutely understanding how to do it. And then I will go away.

Drake: You talked about bringing in young people and using their abilities to develop technology. Is this an opportunity to create these technologies and then share them with other government agencies?

James: You bet. I view our role as a catalyst. This is not our information. We simply are processors. What I see is that we end up sending back to our agency customers a lot of tools, a lot of ways of doing things that will improve and make it easier for them to manage their information. And make certain that people have access to that information.

Drake: Where to do see GPO Access going in the future?

James: It is the electronic heart. It is our future. The first thing is GPO Access. I want to showcase that. I want people to know and understand that's our business.

Drake: You have folks working on better search engines for GPO Access. The current search engine leaves a lot to be desired.

James: We have a new home page []. I like the new home page a lot. It is a far cry away from where we were. We are looking at much better search technology. I don't want to reinvent searching. The beauty of Google is that you don't have to be an expert. You can find a lot of information. I like Google because I get things done really fast. It is so easy. Almost every search gets information.

Drake: I want to get back to the Depository Library Program. If the emphasis shifts to access, how much training do you think can be given to depository librarians?

James: According to the librarians, training is the best thing they get from GPO. I receive letters from depository librarians talking about the rich relationship they have had with GPO over the last 20 or 25 years. The center of each piece of correspondence is that they feel that GPO has been able to give them the education they need to be experts on government documents in their institutions. Training has to be a major focus of that program. We obviously will change the ways we educate people.

Impressions of a Public Printer

Bruce James clearly has a vision for GPO and the commitment and experience to translate the vision into reality. It is no longer business as usual. "Not invented here" and "We've always done it that way" are no longer acceptable ways of operating. Change and transformation are the norms for the future. I was especially impressed by James' firm stands on providing permanent public access to government information and changing the Federal Depository Library Program from focus on paper and microfilm to access to digital information. He could become a catalyst in achieving more collaboration among federal agencies and creating opportunities for sharing software and "know-how."

There are many challenges at GPO. I hope when I return for a follow-up interview in two years that I will find a transformed agency with new ideas, partnerships with other government agencies, universities, and industry. Most important, I expect that James' success will be reflected in easy use of GPO's online and offline facilities by government agency customers, public customers, information purchasers, and users of federal depository libraries.


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