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Tapella, GPO Turn Toward Future

Like all legislative agencies, the Government Printing Office once had some growing pains in preparing for a digital world: angry employees, decreasing revenues, budget shortfalls.

But Robert Tapella, the new public printer and head of GPO, said in an interview Friday that he plans to move forward smoothly by investing more money in employee training and reorganizing the agency’s personnel structure.

GPO has been profitable for four straight years, he said, and the agency can now focus on transitioning into a new business.

“We’re no longer concerned about whether GPO will be around tomorrow,” he said. “Now that we know we will survive, it’s time to thrive.”

Tapella fills the shoes of former Public Printer Bruce James, whose four-year tenure focused on revitalizing the agency’s finances and laying out a plan for developing new technology. Tapella worked under James as chief of staff, lending his experience as a one-time strategic consultant and House staffer. After waiting about four months to be confirmed by the Senate, Tapella said he’s ready to begin implementing the strategic plan he helped create.

The world of printing is rapidly changing, he said. Federal agencies don’t simply publish on ink and paper; they put documents online or in digital form. At the same time, the GPO wants to keep some of its more traditional and unique functions: book marbling, for instance, and handmade leather binding.

“Today many agencies publish directly to the Web,” he said. “What is changing us is how we are working with these agencies to help them communicate with the public.”

A tour of the agency’s large building on North Capitol Street, however, conjures up images of the turn of the century.

The floor where employees churn out books and documents is composed of removable wooden blocks, a vestige of a time when a dropped piece of equipment could cause some serious damage. By making the floor entirely of removable blocks, officials could simply replace ruined portions.

Then there’s the size. It’s too large, Tapella said, wasting money and energy by forcing employees to fit new printing processes into a structure designed for outdated methods. But Congress has to pass legislation before the GPO can initiate its plan to move, and Tapella said he hopes to work with Members to come up with a financially feasible plan.

“Our facilities are too large and too outdated for our current work and for where we go in the future,” he said, echoing James’ past comments.

Transitioning into that future, however, has caused controversy in the past. James’ efforts to change how the GPO does its work led to employee complaints that he was stacking the agency with unneeded layers of high-paid management. But Tapella said the agency needs to hire technologically savvy people to help with new equipment and systems. And to get those experts, GPO has to pay market rates.

“Guess what? We need knowledge workers,” he said, adding that such employees simply come at a higher cost. “It’s not like we just added 15 levels of management.”

But for the past year, the conversation between management and some employees has been tense. Negotiations with eight unions dragged on for months over salary options, focusing at one point on a two-tiered payment system that started off new employees with only 80 percent pay.

But last month, the unions signed a contract with the agency that eliminated the old two-tiered system and promised a 15 percent increase in salary over the next five years. It’s a good first sign of what’s to come, said Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.), chairman of the Joint Committee on Printing.

“New technologies have been changing how the federal government disseminates information for many years,” he said in a statement. “Mr. Tapella will need the support of his employees as he helps to direct the manner in which technology changes the GPO in the years ahead. I look forward to supporting those efforts.”

Tapella said he thinks union talks are an example of the kind of democracy that characterizes the agency. Union members approved the recent contract with a vote of 333-30 — a sign, he said, of a happy work force.

In Tapella’s eyes, the past is the past. He wasn’t at the GPO when the contract was signed, and what happened “doesn’t really matter to me.” But the agency “owes them a fair wage,” he said.

“This is a great deal for these employees,” he said. “They ought to be dancing in the streets.”

Tapella also is trying to improve relations through training and organization. For employees, the agency has instituted a training system that looks at each person individually, establishing a customized plan of what that person needs to learn to keep up with changing technology. He’s also changing the organizational structure, hiring a new employee to oversee the operations of the several internal divisions, such as information-technology. Chief Operating Officer William Turri, who currently oversees those divisions, will concentrate solely on outside customers. Turri held the acting public printer position before Tapella was confirmed.

“My goal as public printer is to improve customer service,” he said. By separating internal operations from external relations, Tapella said he will be able to respond more effectively to the needs and wants of employees and customers.

And that will mean serving Congress more effectively, he said.

“We are integral to Congress. We are here to serve the institution of Congress,” he said. “That’s my No. 1 priority.”