Government's move to digital leaves the poor out in the cold, study says

The Government Printing Office is focusing on electronic publishing at the expense of ink on paper, and in the process it is abandoning millions of the poor, elderly and others without adequate online access, according to a study by the Center for Study of Responsive Law.

Authors acknowledge the benefits of the making digital documents available for free online, but say the cost to those on the far side of the digital divide is too high.

“The GPO strives to make an increasing amount of government documents and information readily available online, but as it pursues this goal, the quality and accessibility of its sales program and physically printed documents have deteriorated, leaving those members of the public who don’t have access to the Internet in the dark,” they conclude in “The People’s Printer: Time for a Reawakening.”


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The report also concludes that archiving and version control of official documents is more effective with print than in digital formats with current technologies and that print should be the preferred archival format until digital technology catches up.

The GPO responded in a statement that it is embracing new technologies in response to the changing demands of Congress, executive branch agencies and the public. While print formats still are needed by many, the agency is doing its best to find an effective mix of media in a time of rapidly evolving technology and financial pressure.

“Like all other agencies in this era of budget limits, we are striving to do more with less, and we continue to explore and incorporate new technologies to carry out our mission,” the statement said.

The Center for Study of Responsive Law is a non-profit public interest research organization founded by Ralph Nader in 1968.

GPO has been the government’s printer for 150 years and in that time has seen technology shift from cold type and ink-on-paper to digital media and electronic documents. It makes many of its products, such as the federal budget and legislation, available for download in PDF format at the Federal Digital System, verifying the authenticity of these online documents with digital signatures. GPO also began producing e-books in 2010 as the format began becoming popular with readers. GPO e-books now are available through Apple’s iBookstore, Google’s eBookstore, Barnes & Noble, OverDrive, Ingram, Zino and other outlets.

Although e-books make up a tiny part of GPO’s sales, a growing percentage of its products are being accessed in electronic formats while print sales are declining. Herbert Jackson, GPO’s managing director of business products and services, recently told GCN that electronic options are “where we are going.”

But the report says that declining demand for print is part of a vicious circle fed by the growth of digital documents. Print prices are increasing faster than the rate of inflation because demand is being driven down by electronic media, making prices of printed products prohibitive and further decreasing demand.

The report cites GPO sales figures that show sales of printed copies have fallen by almost half in the last three years, from 1.3 million in 2008 to 770,579 in 2011. GPO maintained 23 brick-and-mortar bookstores in 2001, but now has just one at the GPO facilities in downtown Washington.

An annual subscription to the Congressional Record, a staple publication of GPO, has risen from $75 in 1979 to $503 today.

“Citizens now have free online access to a multitude of government documents and publications,” the report says. “However, this change has its drawbacks. Once an avenue for citizens to gain access to printing of Government Publications at relatively low cost, it has now become difficult to obtain many items in print.”

The study concludes that this is a significant problem because millions of those without online access are concentrated in specific parts of the population: the elderly, the poor and the rural. “This new digitization is leaving these constituents without adequate access to government documents,” it said.

Although critical of the new focus, the report does not call for abandoning or drawing back from digital media. “It seems logical that this online access to information cannot be a ‘bad’ thing for an informed citizenry,” the report says. But it maintains that “myriad deficiencies remain and must be corrected in the near future.”

To supplement free digital access, the report recommends that GPO do a better job of marketing and making printed material available to spur demand and reduce costs. It should also implement need-based pricing to make material affordable for low income groups. “This would allow minorities, the poor and the elderly to participate more fully in government decisions that impact us all,” it said.

Reader Comments

Tue, Sep 4, 2012

Follow the model of the old depository libraries, and set up dedicated terminals at public libraries with a user-friendly menu system that dumps them right into the index of publications.

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