Today’s GPO: Balancing Tradition with Technology
With 426 employees in its plant and $121 million in annual revenue produced internally, the U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO) has topped In-plant Impressions' ranking of the largest in-plants every year for decades. Still, when asked why the U.S. government needs its own in-house printing operation, GPO Director Hugh Halpern immediately redirects the interview.
“Thinking of GPO just as a printing operation really kind of sells what we do short,” says Halpern from his spacious office inside GPO’s eight-story headquarters in Washington, D.C. —in fact GPO employs about 1,600 total employees and generates more than a billion dollars annually from all of its services.
Across the room, hanging on an elegant wood-paneled wall above a fireplace, a portrait of the nation’s first public printer, Ben Franklin, stares stoically down, a nod to the historic importance of printing to the nation’s government. Yet printing, Halpern notes, is no longer the only way to share government information.
“We provide the data created by the government in a myriad of different ways,” he points out.
That data might end up in a printed book, but it will also go online at GovInfo.gov to allow free public access. GPO even digitizes printed information from the past, such as historic volumes of the Congressional Directory and the public papers of presidents.
The bulk of what GPO does, Halpern adds, happens before the printing stage. Data is collected, proofread, and structured so it looks good across multiple formats, whether on paper, a tablet, a phone, or a laptop. Today’s GPO is more of an information dissemination organization than a printer, he insists — but what it does print, it prints very well.
For example, every night, GPO’s staff assembles the proceedings of all sessions of Congress into the Congressional Record, which must be printed, bound, and delivered prior to the start of the new legislative day. This can be a tall order. Though the average Record is 90 pages, it can exceed 300 pages. GPO prints about 1,500 copies overnight, while also printing the Federal Register, bills, statutes, House and Senate calendars, the U.S. Code, and more. The speed at which it turns these items around, while also making them available digitally, has made GPO an invaluable asset to the country.
“We’re providing services that, frankly, are going to be hard to find in a traditional private-sector printing operation,” notes Halpern.
That said, GPO still runs a robust procurement business, buying nearly 80% of all printing ordered by federal agencies from private sector firms each year. Between $400 to 500 million in contracts are awarded to 1,400 companies annually. These outsourced items include pamphlets, forms, folders, posters, business cards, magazines, and promotional items.
The Transition to Inkjet
But some work, like the Congressional Record, is better handled in-house. To increase the efficiency and speed of its production, GPO made a bold move into production inkjet printing in 2019 when it replaced six aging Hantscho web offset presses with five Canon ColorStream 6000 inkjet presses and one Canon VarioPrint i200 cut-sheet inkjet press.
“It vastly improved our flexibility,” says Halpern.
Gone are the platemaking steps, paper waste, long makeready times, and maintenance needs of the offset era. Instead of needing six operators to run a web press, one person can run an inkjet press, and the work comes out much faster. Since installation, GPO’s on-time delivery rate has improved from 89% to 97%, says Greg Estep, managing director of plant operations.
The ColorStream 6000s are being used to print the Congressional Record, Federal Register, Senate and House reports, economic indicators, hearings, budgets, appropriations bills, the congressional directory, and more. The VarioPrint i200 cut-sheet press handles book covers, visitor badges, immigration cards, forms, stationery, and pamphlets.
“We’re looking to move more work … onto inkjet,” says Estep.
Inkjet also brings another new advantage to GPO: “Now we can deliver color very economically,” says Halpern. His staff works with customers to help them update their designs and add color to their historically monochrome documents.
The removal of the large web offset presses has opened up space at GPO, enabling bindery equipment to be moved closer to the inkjet presses, and shortening the distance jobs have to be moved between press and bindery. Some of that excess space is being rented out to other government agencies.
Automated Bindery Brings Efficiency
Efficiency improvements at GPO did not come solely from inkjet, though. New automated Standard Hunkeler/Horizon bindery lines have enabled virtually touch-free unwinding, folding, trimming, and binding. The newest system unwinds a roll of printed material into a plow folder, cutters, and a Horizon BQ-480 four-clamp perfect binder to produce finished books.
During IPI’s recent visit, the system was producing 500-page perfect bound copies of the Federal Register without manual intervention. A web inspection system gives operators a view of individual pages as they stream past, allowing them to spot-check for problems.
“This reduces the possible points of failure and lets us produce this with fewer people and more precision,” notes Halpern.
“Instead of having 21 involved in the process, we have one or two people,” adds Estep, referring to both the press and bindery processes of the past.
Not Abandoning Offset
GPO’s embrace of digital printing does not mean the in-plant has left offset behind. It still runs its Timsons ZMR “Zero Makeready” press, installed in 2014, along with the eight-color RMGT LED UV offset perfector press it added in 2019 to print high-end color work. Plus, Estep reveals, in March 2024 GPO plans to replace some of its older sheetfed presses with an eight-color UV press chock full of automated features, including predictive analysis, camera monitoring of sheets, and machine learning capabilities.
Other new equipment being investigated includes a roll-to-sew system for automated book binding, an automated folder, and additional inkjet presses for high-end color work. GPO also plans to launch Pace print MIS software from eProductivity Software by the end of the year, replacing its 30-year-old production management system. This will give the team easier access to job data.
“It will allow us to make better decisions,” Estep says.
This software change, however, is superseded by an even more monumental one. GPO is steadily transitioning from a decades-old proprietary composition system (Microcomp) to XML-based publishing using a new digital technology called XPub, which allows it to create, edit, proof, approve, and simultaneously publish legislative documents in a variety of print and digital formats, optimized for any device (see sidebar).
Halpern’s motivation for pushing the transition to XPub stems from his time as a GPO customer. He previously served as the director of floor operations for the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and was Speaker Paul Ryan’s chief advisor on all procedural matters. He says he was continually frustrated by having to use GPO’s outdated proprietary software. Modernizing Congressional document formats was one of his top goals when he took on the director’s job in 2020, just weeks before COVID-19 shut down the country.
Remote Work Brings Opportunities
The pandemic changed GPO in ways that continue to this day. GPO was one of the first federal agencies to implement a full-time telework and remote work policy. Today, about a third of GPO workers are doing telework.
“For us, telework and remote work works really well,” says Halpern. “It has let us recruit from all over the nation.”
GPO has restructured its regional customer service teams so they are no longer tied to a physical office location. This has saved taxpayers nearly $1 million annually in rental costs and overhead expenses, he says.
“As we’ve tried to bring in our next generation of leaders, one of the things that has really attracted folks to our Recent Graduates Program has been the availability of telework and remote work,” Halpern says.
GPO’s ready embrace of remote work was a key reason it was named one of America’s best employers by Forbes two years in a row. Halpern is proud of this recognition and cites other efforts that have contributed to this designation, such as a willingness to listen to employees and make improvements to the facility with a goal of enhancing their experience there. The long tenure of many GPO employees — John Crawford, managing director of Agency Support Operations, for example, just reached 57 years of service — proves the recognition is well deserved.
“Working at GPO is a pretty decent gig,” Halpern remarks — and he intends to keep it this way. “Retaining teammates is really key because replacing them is really expensive, and we want to make sure that it’s a good place to work.”
Related story: GPO’s Move to XML Publishing
Bob has served as editor of In-plant Impressions since October of 1994. Prior to that he served for three years as managing editor of Printing Impressions, a commercial printing publication. Mr. Neubauer is very active in the U.S. in-plant industry. He attends all the major in-plant conferences and has visited more than 170 in-plant operations around the world. He has given presentations to numerous in-plant groups in the U.S., Canada and Australia, including the Association of College and University Printers and the In-plant Printing and Mailing Association. He also coordinates the annual In-Print contest, co-sponsored by IPMA and In-plant Impressions.