Robert Tapella | GPO's balanced mix of digital and paper
GCN Interview with Robert Tapella, the Government Printing Office's public printer
- By William Jackson
- Jun 05, 2008
Government Printing Office public printer Robert Tapella
The Government Printing Office's public printer, Robert
Tapella, really is a printer. He began learning bookbinding at age
12. 'It was at age 14 that I first saw a printing
press,' he said, and in the 1980s he started his own design
He entered government in 1986 as district representative for
then-Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) and in 1996 became a House
staffer, supervising the Office of Member Services of the House
After two years in the private sector, he returned to government
in 2002 as deputy chief of staff at GPO, becoming chief of staff in
2004 and public printer in October 2007.
GCN: How many documents does the Government Printing Office
ROBERT TAPELLA: Under law, government agencies must come to GPO
for their print needs. We print documents in-house, and we procure
[printing services] from the private sector. In-house, we print
between 2 [billion] and 3 billion pages a year, including bills
from the House and Senate, hearings and reports, congressional
directories and telephone books, letterheads, envelopes, and
We also print the official journals of government. The
Congressional Record and Federal Register are basically daily
newspapers about what government is doing. For the [U.S.] Patent
and Trademark Office, we do essentially a weekly newspaper. One of
the premier products we do every year is the federal
budget.' A second class of work done in-house is security
and intelligent documents, which includes the U.S. passport.
The majority of the rest of the work is contracted out '
GPO serves as the contracting office. We have about 2,500 printers
who work for us around the country. Last year, we procured about
98,000 printing jobs.
GCN: How has digital technology changed GPO?
TAPELLA: American citizens have a right to the
information of their government, and the government has the
responsibility to see it is broadly available, accessible by the
public and kept in perpetuity. In 1895, that responsibility went to
the public printer. Until 1993, all public documents were printed
by GPO. Then came the Internet.
Today, more than half the documents federal agencies produce
are'born digital and published to the Web.
GCN: Is ink-on-paper obsolete?
TAPELLA: Absolutely not.
The real question is, in today's world, what do we need to
print and what is better served coming to us in electronic format?
And we're seeing a lot of morphing.
The question that our industry is facing is: Do we print and
then distribute or distribute and then print? In the
distribute-then-print model, you ' as the end user '
have the cost and obligation of printing it with toner or inkjet.
We are seeing a shift from traditional offset printing to digital
technologies because the quantities needed today are being reduced.
I think we're going to see in the not-too-distant future that
digital printing will surpass the traditional offset.
GCN: So the issue is not so much print or electronic as print
TAPELLA: Correct. There are online companies at which the
author can upload a book, get an [International Standard Book
Number], and it costs nothing.
The book is printed when it is bought, and the author pays for
every book that is printed. In the old model, when a book was
published, someone would spend significant amounts of money to
print and warehouse and distribute it. The model for publishing has
GCN: What is the Federal Digital System?
TAPELLA: It is the next generation of digital access. It
is the system whereby all government documents produced by GPO
' past, present and future ' within the scope of the
Federal Depository Library Program will be captured, stored,
authenticated, preserved and kept in perpetuity. We are planning
for content that is not just text. It may have graphics or sound or
other forms of content that we don't even know about today.
It will be available on the Web, [and] you can download it
yourself. We'll have document masters for conventional and
GCN: How does GPO ensure that data accessed online is
accurate and valid?
TAPELLA: That's the biggest issue we're
facing: authentication. The mechanism will be [public-key
infrastructure] to start with. We can authenticate a particular
document. PKI works pretty well for that.
But we don't yet have the capability to authenticate
portions of documents, where if I pull a portion out, it would tell
me where that cut-and-paste came from. We're not there yet.
We're waiting on the technology to be developed. Some of the
big companies are working on it.
GCN: How does GPO ensure that digital documents will remain
accessible as formats and technologies change?
TAPELLA: The responsibility to keep these documents in
perpetuity is a challenge. There are three commonly used methods
for preservation: refresh migration and emulation. With refresh, we
regularly read the file, verify that it is still readable, and then
we rewrite it.
Migration is the process of moving from old formats to new
formats. Emulation is a little more abstract. You create an
operating environment that is similar to what existed when the file
was created. We are going to employ all three methods, depending on
the file type. Refresh and migration are probably the most
GCN: What is the Security and Intelligent Document
TAPELLA: The U.S. passport is now an electronic document.
We produce those for the State Department. We realized that GPO was
probably the largest consumer in government of integrated circuits.
We now have this expertise of integrating this circuitry into
traditional printed documents.
We believe that we can leverage what we are doing for passports
in other areas, such as [Homeland Security Presidential Directive
12 personal identity verification] cards and the Common Access Card
for the military and booklets that are needed by the Homeland
We created this unit to look at how we could leverage what
we've learned and the investments we've made in the
infrastructure here in helping other agencies.
GCN: How has the production of passports changed?
TAPELLA: When I came here five years ago, we were
producing about 8 million passports a year. The ones we printed
five years ago were very similar to ones we made in 1926, the first
year that we printed passports.
All of a sudden, we now have passports with electronic chips.
This was happening at a time when demand for passports began
Last year, we produced over 19 million passports, and of those,
over 15 million were electronic. Today we only produce electronic
passports. We've had an estimate from the State Department
that next year the demand may be as high as 25 million to 28
GCN: What were the challenges in moving from traditional to
TAPELLA: The significant challenges fell into two areas. One
was the process changes needed to go from a traditional press
environment to a high-tech manufacturing environment. The second
was the volume issue. We went from one shift a day to running 24
hours a day, and we expanded the number of lines we had producing.
I give great credit to the men and women'on the passport
line who had been working, in some cases, seven days a week, 12- to
15-hour shifts to meet the demand.
The equipment used to make passports is custom-made for us. No
one else in the world produces a passport exactly like GPO. We
couldn't shut down the production line to retool for a new
product. We couldn't shut down the production line very long
to test. So we had to test on the fly. What we initially learned
was that, while these new standards are great, no one had ever
produced a passport with them. Everybody was learning on the fly.
But we always met the requirements of the State Department for the
quantity of books.
GCN: Are you ready for the expected increased demand in the
TAPELLA: We are. We are buying the equipment to expand
capacity. We are in the process of building yet another production
line and staffing it. Five years ago, we had 40 or 45 people
working on passports. We're now up to 120, and I think that
number is going to be up to 150.