December 04, 2013

House Administration Committee Charts GPO’s Digital Future

By Daniel Schuman

Government Printing OfficeEarlier today, the Committee on House Administration held an oversight hearing on the “Mission of the Government Printing Office in a Post-Print World.” GPO is responsible for publishing government information from all three branches of government. This timely hearing featured Public Printer Davita Vance-Cooks, whose testimony focused on rebranding GPO and reframing its role around the dissemination of information in a “digital future,” including a recommendation that the agency be renamed the Government Publishing Office.

We commend the Committee for examining how GPO must continue to transform itself in light of the two decades-old internet revolution. Indeed, today’s environment is reminiscent of the circumstances that led to GPO’s creation and evolution in the 19th century. As Harold Relyea explained in his seminal article “The Coming of Secret Law,” GPO was charged with ensuring reliable public awareness of and access to government information, and its creation was an attempt to address waste and fraud in printing public documents. In our modern age these goals persist, but with the twist that public access means publishing information online, in useful formats, and without a public access charge.

Today’s hearing focused more on GPO as a business than GPO as a public service. Questions circled around “rightsizing” staff, the recent government shutdown, the relationship between management and labor, and so on. An ill-founded National Academy of Public Administration report on the future of the GPO — which failed to obtain comments from the public interest community, non-profit data re-publishers, journalists, and others — was entered into the record, although no mention was made of the Committee’s rebuke of the report’s recommendation that GPO consider charging “end users” for online access to government information. The GPO’s written comments accompanying the testimony echoed the rebuke, declaring “we have no intention of charging users a fee to access content available through FDsys.”

During the course of the testimony and Q&A, a few thoughts came to mind:

  • The Public Printer cited GPO’s laudable role in supporting efforts to make legislative data available to the public in bulk as well as creating several mobile apps.  Will GPO make the underlying data behind the Plum Book, the Constitution Annotated, and other apps available as APIs or in bulk as well? Will the default for new data offering include releasing the information in machine-readable formats? Does the GPO view itself as a provider of raw data?
  • We were pleased that the Public Printer cited James Madison’s famous saying, “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” Given the GPO’s historic and important role as the conduit of information to the public, would the agency establish a public advisory committee to provide recommendations on the means by which it releases information? Surely the efforts of Cornell’s Legal Information Institute and GovTrack demonstrate how third parties can help GPO fulfill its mission of “keeping America informed.”
  • Does the GPO see the public as stakeholders, customers, or something else?
  • GPO explained that it has excess office space it is trying to lease. While there may be legal or prudential considerations to the contrary, would it consider sharing space with non-profit organizations dedicated to public access to information? Bringing open government technology startups into close proximity to GPO may bring significant benefits to GPO as it moves into the digital future.
  • Will there be additional hearings by the Committee on House Administration that address these issues, and if so, will there be an opportunity for public comment?

Chairman Candice Miller (R-MI), Ranking Member Robert Brady (D-PA), and members of the Committee on House Administration were right to draw back the curtain on GPO’s plans for its digital future. We are looking forward to more hearings along these lines, including some by the Senate Rules Committee.

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