Davita Vance-Cooks will help steer Lincoln-era printing office through the digital age

Davita Vance-Cooks will make history this month when she is sworn in as the first African American and first woman to head the Government Printing Office. The agency began operations on March 4, 1861, the day of President Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration. Vance-Cooks joined the GPO in 2004 and became the acting public printer in January 2012 after the full Senate did not hold a confirmation vote for her predecessor, William Boarman.

President Obama nominated her to the office of public printer in May 2013, and her confirmation hearing in July was one of the swiftest Senate actions on a public-printer nominee in nearly 20 years.

What’s your background?

I’m a Navy brat. . . . The first thing we would do when we got to a new base was find a library. My mother introduced me to Laura Ingalls Wilder and Nancy Drew and all that kind of stuff. They were great. As I got older, I would escape into those books. I just love the feel of books, [their] smell. I just savor reading.

You worked in the private sector before coming to the GPO. What inspired you to take charge of big printing operations, and what influenced your move to the public sector?

I’ve had 20 to 25 years of private-sector experience, mainly in the health-care field or health-care insurance field. It was mostly on the operational side, managing large groups of people, meeting metrics and deadlines. I also worked for a couple of start-up companies where I liked starting and finishing big items, big projects. I decided to come to the federal government because I thought it’d be interesting to blend my private-sector and public-sector experience. Once I came into the Government Printing Office in the customer service environment, it was just fascinating. . . . And I ended [up] moving up and moving up, and going all over the building getting more and more responsibility and learning.

Was there anything about printing specifically that inspired you to take on a bigger role?

It wasn’t so much printing; it was the mission of GPO. The mission of GPO is to keep America informed about the business of the government. I was intrigued about the mission. Printing is just one way that you can keep people informed. I liked the whole idea of figuring out different ways for people to communicate with the public.

Can you tell me about the government book blog that you started?

We need to find a way to excite [people] about the books that we sell. A lot of times when people think about government documents, they think they’re kind of boring. Nothing could be further from the truth, because government documents tell you what’s going on with the government. It tells you all the facts and statistics. It tells you how the government helps people have better lives. So the whole idea of a book blog was to generate excitement about the books that we currently produce or publish or have on sale, either through our online bookstore or in our bookstore downstairs. And it works; it’s really great.

Could you tell me more about your partnership with Google to turn publications into e-books?

The younger population deals with digital technology every day. It’s part of their life. In order to keep relevant and to make people realize that government documents are available and they mean something to your life, we need to offer them in whatever format constituents want. The best way for us to do that was to partner with an expert. Google certainly is an expert. They provide us with all the analytics that relate to our Google e-books. They took all of our books in our online bookstore, scanned them, and they have them sitting out there. And it’s turned out to be a very good idea and a very good partnership.

How do you stay abreast of current technology trends?

It’s tracking, watching what’s going on. We have a department called the Program Strategy Technology department (PST for short). These individuals do a lot of research. They analyze and watch the market to see what’s going on. For example, let’s look at the president’s budget. It’s a big deal in a lot of circles, and about 30, 40 years ago when the president’s budget was released, it was a very big photo op as well as a media event. People would come and stand outside of this building, and the line would go all the way around waiting for a copy of the president’s budget, which would be thick with multiple volumes. Then the Internet came. So we started to put it online. Two years ago, we thought, maybe they want an app. That app idea came from the PST. The line’s not as long for people to get the print, but because we kept track of the trend and realized we needed an app, we had one ready and available, and now people are going in and downloading the app.

What is your biggest idea for the GPO?

I want this agency to continue to transform to meet the demands of the public. I want us to always be in touch with what the public needs. And I want us to be lean enough and agile enough to respond quickly.

What’s the greatest challenge?

Resources. The culture has changed tremendously. I’m fortunate because I think we have an agency that is committed to the mission I just described. We’re going to get there, but it’s always going to be a matter of balancing our resources against what the public needs.

What’s something that people don’t know about this office?

Some people don’t know that we make passports. We have a long-standing relationship with the State Department. We have been producing them since the 1920s. This office also printed the Emancipation Proclamation, which I used to think it was this big document but it was actually very small. Downstairs there’s an exhibit, and last year we had the original. It was awesome. When I heard it was here, I went running downstairs and I was looking for this big parchment, and when I saw it, I thought, ‘Wow, this small document changed the world.’ ” It was so tiny. It was humbling.

The recent buyout of nearly 315 GPO employees suggests a pretty significant shift. Does that mean we’ll see you recruiting employees with digital expertise?

When I was chief of staff to Bill Boarman, one of the things we talked about is that we were shifting the organization towards a digital outlook. At the same time, we realized that our costs were heavy. So we considered a buyout to target individuals who were near retirement age. The thing about a buyout is that you lose a lot of history when people walk out the door like that. However, we were focused on where the agency needed to go. We hire the people and skill sets that we need for the direction we’re going. You will see us hiring more programmers, more program developers, Web developers.

During your confirmation hearing, you told Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) that you wanted to change your office’s name from Government Printing Office to Government Publishing Office. Why?

When we first opened our doors in 1861, printing was all people knew. But now, almost everything we do starts off digital. We have something called FDsys, our one-stop-shop repository for all our congressional information. We get 35-40 million downloads a month. And I think it has 800,000 titles on it. It’s huge. One of the questions people always ask is, “Why do you need a GPO when all that information’s on the Web?” It’s important for people to know we’re the ones who put that there. We not only create digital files, we use digital products and digital processes. Printing is just a small part of our portfolio, so I think our name should be “Publishing” to encompass everything that we do.

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