Confronting Digital Age Head-On

The Government Printing Office released the president's budget last month, one of its biggest events of the year.
The Government Printing Office released the president's budget last month, one of its biggest events of the year. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 13, 2006

Three trucks, carrying hundreds of copies of the president's proposed federal budget, left the Government Printing Office one morning early last month and headed for House and Senate office buildings. For several days, about 100 GPO employees had worked to print the 352-page document and 2,000 pages of accompanying material.

Distributing the budget plan -- a total of 8,500 copies of it -- is one of the biggest events of the year for the printing office, but it is also becoming something of an anachronism for the 192-year-old organization.

For most of U.S. history, any government agency that needed to print many copies of a document went to the GPO. Now, about half of government documents go straight online, forcing the printing agency to find new ways to make itself relevant in an increasingly paperless world. But questions of security, privacy and authenticity have confronted the GPO leadership as it has sought to get up to date in the digital age.

"We are determined that we are going to put every single [government] document on the Web," said GPO chief Bruce R. James, the nation's public printer.

Inside the GPO's 1.5 million-square-foot headquarters across from Union Station, scratched floors, paint-peeled walls and pockets of empty space suggest a warehouse of a bygone era -- not quite the industrial character of 1860 when Congress acquired the site, but certainly not the cutting-edge design of a modern enterprise.

But then, there are signs of change.

Steve LeBlanc, operations manager of the new security and intelligent documents unit, showcases a nearly $1 million printing press called the Heidelberg Speedmaster that can print 13,000 sheets per hour in full color.

Ted Priebe, assistant chief of staff for digital conversion services, oversees the conversion of government documents into digital media that can be accessed for decades to come.

Elsewhere, Lisa LaPlant, a program manager in authentication initiatives, demonstrates how the printing office is trying to tag digital government documents -- in "portable document format"-- so users will know that the documents have not been altered.

The initiatives are part of two projects James launched to refocus the agency on 21st-century challenges after taking the GPO post in late 2002: the Future Digital System; and the secure and intelligent documents unit.

"We had absolutely no technical knowledge with the exception of one or two really insightful youngsters," he said.

Americans wanted to search for information on the Web and did not want to pay for printed versions of government documents. Seventeen thousand people, for example, paid to receive the Congressional Record in 1995, a number that was quickly shrinking by 2002 and now stands at less than 2,000. A quarter of a million pages are retrieved from it online in a month.

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