As Government Information Moves Online Millions of Americans Disconnected and Left Behind

Report Calls for the Government Printing Office to Receive Adequate Funding to Perform Its Duties

 For More Information Contact:
Ralph Nader or Jeff Musto
[email protected]
(pdf of report)

Ralph Nader’s Center for Study of Responsive Law today released a new report, The Peoples’ Printer: Time for a Reawakening, by Tom W. Ryan with Jeff Musto. In the midst of the digital information age, this report reveals the shortfalls of a Government Printing Office (GPO) that focuses on online information at the expense of print media.

Speaking about the report, Ralph Nader said, “With government information increasingly moving online, unconnected Americans are being left behind. These people are often the most vulnerable and isolated members of our society – the poor, the elderly, and the rural.”

The timely release of a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) report last week draws attention to the fact that 19 million Americans live in areas of the country that don’t have access to high-speed internet. A 2012 report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project that shows 22 percent of Americans over the age of 18 don’t use the internet. This equates to 50 million people.

“For over 150 years, since President Abraham Lincoln took office, the Government Printing Office has played a vital role in disseminating information about the government to Americans. As the GPO moves information online, the digital divide between connected and unconnected Americans is widening. This threatens the GPO’s self-proclaimed mission to ‘keep America informed. The GPO provides a range of information including information useful to consumers, about ongoing government activities, about public health, public services, citizen access to their government agencies and departments, and government reports, among other things,’” said Nader.

The GPO’s efforts to put an increasing amount of government information available online takes a huge step forward in making this information more accessible than ever to Americans with internet access. Over 13 million documents are retrieved from GPO’s online services each month, and this number is growing. An unfortunate consequence of the shift away from print media, however, is that Americans who remain offline are increasingly disconnected from their government. “The Peoples’ Printer” paints a troubling picture of who is being left behind:

  • 32.1 % of Americans making less than $15,000 per year had high-speed internet access in their home, compared to nearly 90 % of Americans making $150,000 or more annually.
  • 49 % of black Americans and 51 % of hispanic Americans have access to broadband internet at home, compared to 66 % of white Americans.
  • 94 % of Americans aged 18 to 29 were internet users, while only 41 % of Americans 65 years or older were.

In the past few decades, the GPO has moved much of the information it provides online, printed less, and outsourced more of its printing work. This has resulted in fewer employees, lower sales, fewer physical document requests, and consumers were confronted with skyrocketing prices for print publications. Some costs have increased five-fold. While much of this is attributable to advances in technology, it is also indicative of a federal government moving increasingly away from physical printing of documents, and that the GPO’s authority as government and public printer has been consistently undermined:

  • In the early 1970s, GPO had 8,572 employees. Today, it employs just 1,900.
  • In FY 1993, the year GPO’s online dissemination authority was enacted by Congress, GPO’s annual sales were $84.1 million. Today, GPO’s annual sales are just over $11 million.
  • Since the 1960s, GPO’s daily print of the Congressional Record has fallen from about 45,000 copies to less than 3,000 copies today.
  • 85 % of government printing during the 1950s was performed in-house. In FY 2011, GPO reported that about 73.2 % of its printing work, costing $392.8 million, was outsourced.
  • In 1979, an annual subscription to the Congressional Record was $75. Today, it costs $503.

“The GPO could be doing more to achieve their self-proclaimed mission of ‘keeping America informed,’ but not without adequate funding dedicated to both expanding free access to government information online and ensuring that Americans without internet access aren’t left in the dark,” said Jeff Musto.

“The Peoples’ Printer” makes important recommendations to improve the Government Printing Office’s role in “keeping America informed”:

  • Increase funding for the Government Printing Office. The GPO is woefully underfunded to achieve the admirable goal of “keeping America informed.” The GPO needs adequate funding to reestablish a robust print operation as well as to expand and improve its online presence.
  • The GPO should reevaluate its print procurement procedures. The current system rewards outsourcing to companies that exploit low-cost labor, creating the façade of efficiency. The GPO should institute a pay equity clause in government contracts to ensure equal pay is provided for equal government work performed in both the public and private sector.
  • The Joint Committee on Printing, the GPO’s oversight body in Congress, has been stagnant, ineffective, and unmoving. To change this, the independent annual appropriations for the Joint Committee on Printing, chaired by Congressman Gregg Harper and vice-chaired by Senator Charles Schumer, should be reinstated. Public hearings should be scheduled on more frequent intervals to assess the performance of the GPO in meeting the needs of the government and the public.
  • GPO publications are expensive in part due to low demand for print materials caused by online access and abysmal GPO promotion and marketing. GPO should extend its sales beyond the online bookstore and implement a need-based acquisition approach that allows those with lower incomes adequate access to printed government publications.
  • The GPO should use print to ensure essential archives are safe from unexpected failures or technological obsolescence.
  • GPO should embrace a document disposal policy that ensures the protection of valuable government publications.

“This vision emphasizes the vital role that the Government Printing Office could play in keeping all of America informed, not just those with online access. There are great benefits in making information available online; but if we shift in this direction oblivious to the unintended consequences, we risk losing an invaluable resource,” concluded Nader.

A full copy of the report can be downloaded as a PDF here. Printed copies are also available for $10 plus postage.