The scent of ink and paper and the oils that lubricate the engines of one of Washington’s last manufacturing facilities wafted across the plant floor. Aside from the whirring of the press, the room was quiet, another reflection of the fact that the legions of compositors, proofreaders, platemakers and press operators on three shifts who once filled these press rooms a block from Union Station have long since disappeared.
In their place are young Web developers and information technology specialists trying to reinvent one of the government’s oldest, proudest institutions. And, for now at least, succeeding.
In an era when 97 percent of federal documents are now created electronically, people ask why the printing office still exists. Politicians are calling for smaller government, and some have sponsored legislation ordering that printed copies of congressional bills and resolutions cease. House Republicans tried last year to slash the agency’s budget by more than 20 percent.
Evidence of its obsolescence is mounting. The Federal Register and Congressional Record, GPO’s signature publications, have plummeted to 2,500 copies from a 30,000-copy run two decades ago. In that time conventional government printing has shrunk by half. At 1,900 employees, one of the last blue-collar strongholds in a white-collar bureaucracy is at its lowest point.
The printing office’s leader has a salve for this decline: rebranding.
“We needed a plan,” Davita Vance-Cooks says. “People are asking questions like, ‘Your name is GPO. Are you still printing?’ ” Her official title is “public printer,” the “k” lopped off “public” sometime in the last century.
Her answer, when she became the first woman to lead the agency last January, was this: “You can’t just come into the situation we’re in and say, ‘Status quo.’ ” Then she smiles. “We’re a poster child for adaptation.”
Vance-Cooks released a five-year strategic plan this week that sets out a trajectory for the agency, which was founded on the eve of the Civil War. The GPO will still print the federal budget, the Code of Federal Regulations and many other publications that people can touch. But it’s in the process of becoming a digital library holding the government’s most important electronic documents and a workhorse for a post-Sept. 11 security culture.
The GPO began printing passports 80 years ago, stitching them together by hand in its bindery. For several years it has served as the printer of secure government IDs — biometrically designed passports and border-crossing smart cards. With $200 million worth of secure cards printed in the past fiscal year, the agency is counting on the business to continue its exponential growth.