Is the GPO a Digital Printer or a Digital Publisher?

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The tension between the Government Printing Office’s traditional role as a printing operation and its future as a publisher of digital government information was apparent at a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee’s Legislative Branch Subcommittee last week.

In her testimony, acting Public Printer Davita Vance-Cooks stressed the GPO’s efforts to transition to the digital age and acknowledged that the agency’s role has evolved to that of a publishing operation. Unfortunately, the GPO has often failed to take steps that would allow it to fully embrace that role and ensure its future as an essential source of information.

Vance-Cooks highlighted some important agency initiatives as “exponentially expanding public access to government information,” including the public access to over 800,000 federal titles provided through FDsys and recent moves to make House bills available in XML bulk data format.

These steps are important and laudable, however the GPO has often been hesitant to fully embrace the role of publisher of digital information. For example, the impetus to provide bulk access to legislative data came through leadership from the House. In addition, while the agency created a mobile application containing a digital copy of the Plum Book, a compilation of over 8,000 federal positions that may be appointed by the President, it did not make the underlying data available in bulk or provide access to its API, limiting the ability of third parties to reuse and systematically analyze the information. We are also still waiting for the GPO to make the Constitution Annotated available as the Joint Committee on Printing Directed. These examples, and others like them, are grounds for concern.

The GPO has an opportunity to seize the digital future and become a vital and useful source of government information. In her written testimony, Ms. Vance-Cooks supported this idea, specifically praising bulk formats for their ability to allow “data to be reused and repurposed…for conversion into ebooks, apps, and other forms of content delivery, including data mashups and other analytical tools by third party providers, which contribute to openness and transparency in government.” To make this a reality the GPO must be more than a digital printer, tightly controlling the look, feel, and utility of the information they provide. It must embrace open data to remain relevant.

The current budget situation isn’t making the GPO’s job any easier, but dedication to providing open, bulk, and free access to government information would transform the agency from just another PDF publisher to an essential information source that powers countless apps, websites, and other digital tools.

Unfortunately, a recent report by the National Academy of Public Administration suggested that the agency should take a different approach and explore imposing a fee-for-use or download structure on FDsys in order to secure funding, a move that would severely restrict existing public access to information. Vance-Cooks spoke highly of the NAPA report during her testimony without specifically addressing the proposal to charge the American public for access to documents created and maintained by their government.

My colleague Eric Mill summed up the problem with charging for using or downloading FDsys documents nicely earlier this month when he wrote “there’s no such thing as a nominal fee for government information this fundamental. Public services like GovTrack.usOpenCongressScout, and even other government initiatives like FederalRegister.gov, can only exist by first obtaining entire datasets — millions of pages — from FDSys.” Indeed, this third party use acts as an amplifier to the GPO’s efforts to make information available to the public.

Ms. Vance-Cooks spoke of the vital role that the GPO plays in informing the American people, quoting James Madison; “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” If the GPO wants to continue playing a role in arming the American people with knowledge it must work to ensure that the government information they provide is available for free and in useful formats

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