Is the GPO still relevant in the digital age?

An affirmative answer to that question was seriously in doubt when Bruce James took over in 2002. Now digital initiatives show a new value proposition for the government's document publishing agency.

The Washington Post takes a look at the Government Printing Office in the age of the digital printing press. Post reporter Zachary Goldfarb finds an agency confronting two major challenges - how to maintain relevancy when agencies can publish their documents directly to the Web, and how to ensure security and authenticity for digital delivery.

Seventeen thousand people, for example, paid to receive the Congressional Record in 1995, a number that was quickly shrinking by 2002 and now stands at less than 2,000. A quarter of a million pages are retrieved from it online in a month. 

"We are determined that we are going to put every single [government] document on the Web," said GPO chief Bruce R. James, the nation's public printer.

One major project in the new GPO are the Future Digital System, a $30 million project to put online all 60 million pages of government documents, tagged by keywords, by 2007. The other is the Secure and Intelligent Documents division.

The secure and intelligent documents unit is working to ensure that digital documents are certified as authentic and that important documents are extremely difficult to counterfeit, something that has posed more of a problem as technologies have emerged to assist counterfeiters.

But  the GPO is also involved in designing the new high-tech passports.

The State Department asked the GPO to create the new passport as part of an effort to further secure entry points into the United States. The new passport will include advanced anti-counterfeiting markings and a computer chip and antenna built into the cover. That will allow a border agent to slide the passport over an electronic reader that will display the passport holder's information on a monitor.

Privacy advocates raised concerns almost as soon as the new passport was announced in early 2004. The concerns focused on the chip and antenna, a technology known as radio frequency identification (RFID), which advocates fear could be scanned by identity thieves and other criminals.

At the center of this debate is the GPO, which is responsible for contracting with a chip vendor and assembling the passport book. James said that finding a vendor has included challenges. Similar issues may come up with new uniform government IDs, which also have internal RFID chips. A report by the Government Accountability Office raised questions about whether agencies preparing to implement the new ID would be able to by this fall because of technological and other limitations.

Ultimately, GPO's ability to remake itself into the government's IT department may be stymied by Congress.

James eventually would like to move GPO from its North Capitol Street home "into a new facility designed and equipped for the 21st century." Congress is likely to slow that effort.

To Michael F. DiMario, a 30-year veteran of the printing office whom James replaced, this all sounds familiar. "We were under a very high demand from the Congress for many years to shrink the agency," he said. "The goal of Congress was not to build IT departments."