Government Publishing Office resets with a new five-year strategy

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A reskilled workforce and a continuing move towards a digital future. Those are among the strategic imperatives laid out by the Government Publishing Office. GPO’s new five-year plan has a theme: America Informed. For the details, GPO Director Hugh Halpern spoke to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:
Tom Temin: Mr. Halpern, good to...

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

A reskilled workforce and a continuing move towards a digital future. Those are among the strategic imperatives laid out by the Government Publishing Office. GPO’s new five-year plan has a theme: America Informed. For the details, GPO Director Hugh Halpern spoke to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Halpern, good to have you back.

Hugh Halpern: Hey, Tom, it’s always good to be back.

Tom Temin: So a new five-year plan that seems to build pretty closely with what GPO has been doing for the last several years, last maybe decade or so, tell us more about the new plan for ’23 and beyond.

Hugh Halpern: Absolutely, we’re really excited about the opportunities presented by this sort of check in. And while the last strategic plan was really about moving from the print-centric past, to what was then the digital future. But that digital future is now our present. So this is all about how we structure ourselves and how we focus on satisfying our customers in this new digital environment, and being comfortable in that environment.

Tom Temin: And that idea of informing America implies maybe an expansion of something that GPO has always had, which is the system of getting federally related documents out to the public wherever it may be beyond simply printing Congress’ own business. And so what are the plans to again, in the current digital state to update what used to be the library system?

Hugh Halpern: Absolutely. Our vision of an America Informed is really centered around this concept that Americans and folks who may not be Americans need to know what our government’s doing. And part of that is their role in the democracy. If you don’t know what your government’s doing, you can’t make informed decisions about who your leaders should be. Similarly, our government does a lot of stuff, and making sure that that information about what the government is doing is available is really important for all of our patrons. Now, one of the things that’s going on right now, that I’m looking forward to hearing about from our library community, is a decision as to whether the federal depository library program should move to an all digital model, or mostly digital model. And we’ve really assembled a great group of folks, both from the academic world, from sort of the rank-and-file libraries out in communities, to other government librarians to put their heads together and make some recommendations by the end of the year as to what that looks like. This is all part of us moving forward, like I said, realizing what our digital present is, and producing the kinds of products and providing the kind of information that folks need in that digital environment.

Tom Temin: And just on that library point, I saw a documentary recently on the new way that libraries in general are modeling themselves, community centers, and there’s coffee shops in them. And it’s all digital. I mean, there’s books, but it’s mostly digital. And it’s a gathering place for people. You can almost imagine a GPO kiosk or workstation. And that way that the depository library could be anywhere there’s a library now.

Hugh Halpern: Oh, absolutely. Now, GovInfo.gov, which is our trusted digital repository, where we provide all of this information to our users, and frankly, to a lot of other customers. So if you go to Congress.gov, and you’re looking for congressional information, they’re using a lot of data that we’re providing through GovInfo. There are other sites that are doing the same kind of thing. I gotta tell you a funny story. So when I was in the confirmation process for this job, I had to track down some paper I had written in college. So I returned to the campus of American University, and was trying to track this thing down and went to the library where I spent countless hours as an undergrad and grad student, and I walked in the front door, and my immediate reaction was, where’d all the books go? Yeah, the floorplan is a lot more open. There’s a lot more in terms of collaboration space, and things like that, that you’re going to find in a modern library. That’s very different from when I went to college 30 years ago, and we’re working very closely with our library partners, make sure we’re providing documents in formats that makes sense for them. And, we’re looking at things from all sorts of different angles, whether more print on demand makes more sense, or we still need a subset of printed documents, or we can move 100% digital. So I’m really looking forward to the recommendations that this taskforce is going to come back with so we can figure out what that part of our operations looks like going forward.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Hugh Halpern, director of the government publishing office. And let’s talk about the workforce for a moment because going from bookbinding to that digital oriented workforce is a long journey. In some sense, every agency is going through something similar, but yet at the same time, there are certain crafts that now, small as they might be nevertheless need to be preserved for a long time. Tell us about some of the workforce initiatives under the strategic vision.

Hugh Halpern: Absolutely. So as I’ve talked about in the past, GPO actually faces a real problem that almost 50% of our teammates will be eligible to retire within the next five years. That doesn’t mean they all will. And hopefully, a lot of them are going to stay with us for a good long time. And it’s not unusual here at GPO, to have teammates who work here for 25, 30, even 40 years. So, we want to make sure though, as our teammates decide to take their well-earned retirements, that we are able to make sure we’ve got a workforce that can fill that gap going forward. So we’ve done a lot of different things like we’ve restarted our apprenticeship program, we’ve started with proofreaders and keyboard operators, but we hope to expand that program to include other trades next year, whether that’s press people, bookbinders, or some of the more traditional trades like carpenters and electricians. We’re also looking at creating new positions, such as our new production technician position for our passport operators, where they’re not quite full fledged bookbinders. But there’s a path where we can hire folks who have some technical aptitude, whether they develop that in high school or working in another manufacturing environment, and give them the kind of on the job training that they need to eventually reach that status where they are full fledged bookbinders, and able to run all of the equipment in our passport production operation. And you know, it’s not just sort of those traditional trades as well. It’s making sure that our environment is welcoming, and really brings in folks even in our more knowledge worker jobs. So right now, the agency, about two thirds of our folks are more production, more blue collar employees, whereas the other third are more knowledge workers. But with our government leading telework and remote work policies, we’ve actually been able to attract a lot of folks to GPO. One example, in our human capital area is we had an employee who left us a few years ago for another opportunity. But because our telework and remote work policies are so progressive, she actually came back because it worked better for her and her family. Similarly, we’ve been working on hiring a new superintendent of documents, one of our senior executive team, folks, and the fact that we’ve got a very progressive remote work policy has really expanded the pool of applicants we could look at for that role as well. So it’s something that I think is going to set us up really well for the future.

Tom Temin: And the workforce seems to undergird another area that is mentioned in the plan, which is explore expansion of agency products and services, that is to maybe maintain that vertical integration, because of supply chain uncertainties and the vicissitudes of the external contractor market.

Hugh Halpern: Absolutely. So there are a lot of things that GPO has traditionally done that we’re going to continue to do. Yeah, we do most of Congress’s work here in our plant. But for a lot of the executive branch work, we work with thousands of independent print shops and factories all across the country. The fact of the matter is, though, that the print industry is a little bit in a realignment. They’re facing some of the same supply constraints that we do, but they’re reacting differently. They’re looking at different kinds of work and things like that. And sometimes they’re no longer able to meet the needs of our federal customers. So in those cases, we’re looking for opportunities to bring that work back to GPO or figure out alternatives for them. Similarly, we’re looking at providing totally new opportunities for our federal customers. So for instance, one of the things that I would like to see GPO really get into is providing good document creation services for our customers. So for instance, if Congress says to the EPA or any agency, “Hey, you have to produce this annual report for us,” well, GPO can help those agencies by constructing a template for Word or whatever word processor they’re using, and they can create that content using that template. We can ingest that template and then produce perfectly typeset output along with good machine readable code that can easily be transferred to the web and provide that information in a way that folks, whether they’re in the library or just out in the hinterlands can find that information, reuse it, and use it in a way that makes sense for them.

Tom Temin: And finally, here’s a double question in some ways: Do you get much guidance from Congress? Do they pay attention to GPO? Or do they take it for granted? And that relates to one of your ideas of becoming financially stable, that stated in the strategic report, that has a lot to do with Congress also. They’re also the main customer, and of course, they still produce PDFs of 1000-page bills that are not searchable, not linkable, not anything-able.

Hugh Halpern: So we have great support from our congressional oversight folks, both on the authorizing and the appropriating side. And they’ve been real important supporters for us. So Congress, I always talk about Congress as being our most important customer, because in addition to being a customer, they’re our boss. But they’re not our largest customer, our largest customer is the Department of State, largely because of the work we do on passports. But that said, we are working very closely with Congress to try and improve the quality of the documents that Congress produces. And again, it sort of ties in with my earlier example, because we want those staff attorneys, those members of Congress really focused on what that content is writing that committee report, writing that bill, rather than struggling to work through formatting issues. So our new composition engine XPub, we will be done with our work hopefully, before the end of the fiscal year. And hopefully, Congress will be ready by the end of this year beginning and next to start integrating that into their operations. And that’s going to provide some real tangible benefits to folks on the other side. So for instance, if you look at the plain text display of a bill today, I think the polite way I can put that is it’s garbage. It’s hard to use, it’s hard to repurpose, and not terribly useful. And I say that as somebody who used that display all the time when I was on the Hill. Now, when XPub comes online, we’ll be able to produce a good responsive HTML display that will look good on your phone, on your tablet or on your computer. Plus, you can cut, copy and paste that information into your word processor. So if you’re working on a bill with somebody on the Hill, it becomes much easier to engage in the kind of collaboration that folks have come to expect.

Tom Temin: So XPub is a content creation platform for the legislative process, would that be a good way to describe it?

Hugh Halpern: It’s actually GPO’s composition engine. So the way I’ve described it is GPO sort of owns the software stack that Congress uses to print. So when they hit Ctrl+P, our software takes over. And the software that controls that is about 40 years old, same software that they’re using today. This new product will replace that very long in the tooth. It’s well overdue, but is really the key to us delivering a lot of new products over the next decade and beyond.

Tom Temin: And there has been a select committee on the modernization of Congress. And they’re looking across many, many things. But including that whole issue, have you been in touch with them? And if they include a GPO in their deliberations?

Hugh Halpern: Absolutely. We’ve been talking a lot with the modernization committee. As a matter of fact, the modernization committee’s first committee report was the first committee report we produced using XPub, and it has a whole different format. It’s on letter size paper, it’s in color, uses lots of pictures and graphs and all sorts of stuff. And it’s really kind of an example of what we can do in the future. I’ve talked about congressional documents, and the possibilities there is sort of three legs of the stool. So that first leg is having XPub, having the software stack that really increases your flexibility. Second leg of the stool is having our new digital inkjet presses, which means that it’s much easier for us to build documents that incorporate color or on different size paper or things like that. And that third leg of the stool are things like the modernization committee, indicia that sort of show that Congress is willing to take a look at their own operations and ask questions like, why does a committee report today look, basically the same as it did when GPO opened its doors in 1862? I think you’re gonna see a lot of change over the course of this strategic plan over the next five years and really beyond as Congress reexamines its operations and leverages GPO’s technical capabilities to deliver the kinds of documents that Congress wants, and I think their constituents want.

Tom Temin: Hugh Halpern is director of the Government Publishing Office. Thanks so much for joining me.

Hugh Halpern: Thanks, Tom. It’s always great to talk with you.

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