To Public Printer Davita Vance-Cooks, public information is a “product,” citizens are “consumers,” and fellow agencies are “clients.”
Indeed, Vance-Cooks, who will be sworn in Wednesday as head of the Government Printing Office, uses a fair amount of sales jargon after 25 years of private sector work in product development, market research, customer support and operations management. And in a recent interview at the agency’s North Capitol Street headquarters, she sounded like a CEO striving for a turnaround as she mapped out her “strategic plan” for the future of the 152-year-old federal agency.
“We want to attract another generation of people to our government products, and that generation we want to attract believes in digital,” she said. Only 16 percent of the GPO’s funding comes from congressional appropriations. Like a business, the GPO earns the bulk of its revenue through sales of publications to the public and agency payments for print work.
Vance-Cooks, who has led the agency on an acting basis since Jan. 4, 2012, forged a partnership between the GPO and Google to sell federal publications in e-book format, and she launched a government book blog to fuel the retail market. She’s pitched changing the agency’s name to the “Government Publishing Office” to help with the rebrand.
“Our niche in terms of digital is that we make sure it’s authentic,” she said. “We guarantee that from the point at which it originated to the point at which it’s put up online, nothing has happened to it and it has not been changed or altered.”
Below her eighth-floor office, a team of proofreaders was divvying up the day’s 315-page Federal Register, carefully marking up notices of new Department of Agriculture rules on sweet cherries and Coast Guard rules on drawbridge operations. By the end of their shift, the document would be available on the GPO’s Federal Digital System in plain text and PDF format, with a hyperlinked table of contents.
Vance-Cooks grew fascinated by marketing while earning her MBA at Columbia University. The 56-year-old began her career in downtown New York City, designing pages splashed with lipstick, blush and other cosmetics for Avon product books as a marketing planner. Most of her private sector career was spent in health care. She worked her way up the chain of command at Blue Cross/Blue Shield and served as the senior vice president of operations for NYLCare MidAtlantic Health Plan.
Following in her father’s footsteps, the self-described “Navy brat” decided to try public service in 2004. She applied to be the GPO’s deputy managing director of customer services, and quickly noticed that government clients needed quick turnaround jobs and easy access to printing.
The answer: “FedEx Kinkos — they’re on every corner,” she quipped.
Vance-Cooks helped implement a printing partnership called GPOExpress. Federal agency employees enroll to receive GPOExpress cards that allow them to take advantage of pre-negotiated prices up to 80 percent below retail rates. The program achieved a milestone of 100,000 orders in July.
Like other government agencies, one of the biggest challenges the GPO faces is the sequester. As heads of other agencies examine their budgets and try to figure out what to cut to make it through the fiscal year, one of the first things to go may be printing, Vance-Cooks said.
“I have a serious market outreach going on,” she said. Rather than watching the “trickle-down effect” of government cutbacks, the GPO is “aggressively moving forward” and advertising its long-standing relationship with the printing industry to fellow federal government units.
The GPO’s print procurement department develops bids for federal agency printing projects, then shops for the best offer from a vast network of 16,000 private companies. The vendors compete and the GPO’s high volume of business helps them leverage “rock bottom prices,” Vance-Cooks said.
“That’s what we do and we know how to do it well,” she said. “We’re explaining to the agencies, ‘We can help you manage your printing costs because we have the expertise and we have the volume and the resources to competitively price your printing jobs so that you can still function and we can still help.’”
Vance-Cooks’ business acumen has won her supporters in the Senate.
During a June 12 confirmation hearing, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she would love to work with Vance-Cooks on the “Government Publishing Office” rebrand. Noting that Vance-Cooks could still be the “CEO of the GPO,” Klobuchar said it would be easy for the government to keep the same acronym.
“Yeah, we can save money and keep the old letterhead. OK, we are ready to work on it,” she said.
On Aug. 1, the Senate unanimously confirmed Vance-Cooks. It was the swiftest Senate action on a public printer nominee in nearly 20 years, according to the GPO. Vance-Cooks also becomes the first female and the first African-American public printer. Vases of bright bouquets celebrating the confirmation filled her office during the interview.
Vance-Cooks’ predecessor, William Boarman, was forced to step down in late 2011, after the Senate failed to confirm him. The former vice president of the Communication Workers of America was tapped by President Barack Obama for a recess appointment in April 15, 2010. At the time, critics including conservative activist Andrew Breitbart, questioned Boarman’s commitment to the unique private-public relationship of the GPO.
Vance-Cooks served as Boarman’s chief of staff before her appointment and helped him implement a strategic plan to reduce forces and cut personnel costs. In total, the GPO cut 312 employees through buyouts, early retirements and other departures. Since then, “we have really pulled back on our expenses,” she said. “We’ve reduced travel, we’ve reduced hiring, we’ve reduced training in some cases. We’ve really watched our expenses very carefully.”
Vance-Cooks said she hopes there are no furloughs in the agency’s future. One of her proudest accomplishments is a plan she’s developed to walk employees through the GPO’s next five years, and she markets it everywhere.
Sound bites of the plan are broadcast through the building via televisions that promote GPO happenings.
“All of our employees have a strategic plan,” she said, “we just hammer it home.”