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U.S. Public Printer Converting to Digital

Monday, July 24, 2006 at 3:11 PM

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You may have thumbed through a federal tax booklet in April or sent away for a pamphlet on home insulation - or something - from Pueblo, Colorado. Both of them were produced by the United States Government Printing Office. And the man overseeing the operation is from Cleveland. He's now converting much of the operation from paper to cyberspace. ideastream's Mark Urycki reports.

The Government Printing Office - or GPO - is nearing its 200th birthday publishing every government document and record for whoever wants one. The person in charge, known as the U.S. Public Printer, is appointed by the president. But there have been fewer public printers than presidents. The 24th and current Public Printer is Bruce James, who grew up in Cleveland, a graduate of John Marshall High School. Growing up in the Kamms Corners area, the son of a steelworker, he had the dream, like all 10-year-old boys, of getting his first… printing press?

Bruce James: The first thing I did was get a Plain Dealer paper route when I was 10, and I used that money a year later to buy a printing press and type. A small printing press and a manual about how to print, and I taught myself how to print. By the time I was in high school, I had a dozen kids working for me in a little basement printing plant. And we were doing a whole wide variety of work all over the west side of Cleveland.

You were doing commercial work?

Bruce James: Yes.

Hadn’t you heard a of a Kool-Aid stand?

Bruce James: I can’t tell you what the attraction for printing was. It was not a family business. I just got really interested in it. When I think back about it may have something to with… I always had an appreciation for art. From the time I was a youngster but I wasn’t an artist. I couldn’t paint. I couldn’t do the things that artists do - except with type. And I could design with type really interesting kinds of things. In those days it was hand-set type. One character at a time as you put in a composing stick.

After college, Bruce James moved to San Francisco where he started about a dozen printing companies, pioneering the use of computer-generated text. After a successful printing career, he retired to a cabin at Lake Tahoe, until President Bush came calling with the offer to transform the government printing office with the latest technology. The GPO does not print money, but just about everything else. One of its biggest daily projects is printing the Federal Register - everything happening in the federal government that day - 250 pages.

Bruce James: 10 years ago we had 35,000 paid subscribers to that product - paid about $1,000 a year for a subscription. Today we have fewer than 2,000 paid subscribers but we have a million people a day who download it from the internet. It’s free on the internet.

Going digital has its dangers for the agency that prints the official record of government. James says he has three major goals for the printing office: finding a way to authenticate any online government document, making sure whatever you see online it’s the latest version of that document, and third, finding a method of archiving documents that won’t be obsolete in a few years.

Bruce James: We had to develop a new digital system for dealing with government information. I put together a group of folks to work on that. And for the past two years - two-and-a-half - years we have addressed each of those issues and we will begin to roll out what we’re calling the future digital system next year. The first functionality will take place next year.

90% of the GPO’S work is farmed out to private companies and James visited one of their vendors in Cleveland last week. But the GPO still does its own work printing security and intelligence documents using secret technology.

The Office is working on making Social Security cards more difficult to counterfeit. And new technology is being tested for passports. James already carries one with a slightly thicker cover.

Bruce James: The next version of passports will have an electronic chip, an RFID chip, and an antenna in them. And there we had to address the same issue - how do we keep these from being counterfeited? So we developed a chip that absolutely dies and goes away if anybody tries to change the information.

James plans to move the GPO from its Civil War-era building in Washington to new digs somewhere. He says he’s asking the Office to accept many changes but for someone who’s never worked in the public sector before, he’s had to accept some himself. What’s surprised him most is the selfless quality of the federal workforce.

Bruce James: As now a westerner looking back at Washington, you get preconceived notions about what a government worker must be. This is by far the best workforce I’ve ever had. When you come to work everyday for a company, at the end of the day you’re making money for somebody else. you have an attitude about that. But when you come to work everyday to help your fellow citizens as a public servant it creates a very interesting attitude.

Former Clevelander Bruce James says being the United States Public Printer is the hardest job he’s ever had - and the best. Mark Urycki, 90.3. 

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