LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
The government is often dismissed as nothing but paper-shuffling bureaucrats, but in reality, there's a lot less paper being shuffled these days. Far fewer copies of the federal budget came off government presses this week, just one example of how Washington is trying to wean itself off paper and to online distribution of information.
Of course, this being Washington, this is not without controversy, as NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The Government Printing Office is an imposing New Deal-era edifice, a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS MACHINES)
NAYLOR: The presses that are rolling here on the fourth floor are currently printing an appendix to the Federal budget. The GPO's Jim Bradley says a lot of the paperwork we associate with the government originates here.
JIM BRADLEY: So, these are the same presses we use to print the Federal Register the Congressional Record. We've done some tax forms on them over the years.
NAYLOR: The Government Printing Office celebrated its 153rd birthday this week. It opened the same day Abraham Lincoln was first inaugurated president.
DAVITA VANCE-COOKS: My name is Davita Vance-Cooks, and I am the public printer of the United States.
NAYLOR: As public printer, Davita Vance-Cooks oversees the GPO. On her wall, there's a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, who she calls the patron saint of public printers. Vance-Cooks is the 27th Public Printer, the first who is not white or male. She's proud of the role her agency has had in U.S. history.
VANCE-COOKS: We've printed just about every important document of the nation, starting, of course, with the Emancipation Proclamation, which was a document that pretty much changed the world - all of those documents that have, in fact, shaped the history of the nation.
NAYLOR: Now, the GPO prints everything from passports, to National Park brochures, to immigration documents, to tax forms. But it's printing much less than it used to. Take the budget. The GPO used to print some 130,000 copies of the annual spending plan. But this year, just 25,000 copies rolled off the presses here. The GPO also distributed it on CDROMS, posted it online and on an app, transforming into what Vance-Cooks calls a leaner, more agile organization.
VANCE-COOKS: Once upon a time, about 20 years ago, we had almost 6,000 employees. Today, we have about 1,900. And what you see is a change in skillsets, too, because the equipment that we now have is more digital.
NAYLOR: A similar transition is taking place throughout the bureaucracy, as more government paperwork becomes digitized and goes online. Paper Social Security checks, for instance, are a thing of the past for all but a small number of recipients. Everyone else gets theirs deposited directly into their banks. The vast majority of Americans file their taxes online. The government says it saved some $64 million last year on paper, and that's led to some pushback.
Consumers for Paper Options is a paper industry-backed group that says the government is moving too quickly to trash paper. John Runyan is the group's director.
JOHN RUNYAN: We've got some 25 percent of the American public not online at home, 45 percent of seniors don't own computers, and millions of others are simply not comfortable with technology. We don't want to turn back the clock on technology or efficiency. We simply want to preserve access to non-digital formats, particularly for important government information services, for those who still need them.
NAYLOR: Public Printer Davita Vance-Cooks says the GPO will never become 100 percent digital, and will always accommodate those who want paper documents. But with an eye on the future, she points to a Senate bill that would change the name of her tradition-steeped agency from the Government Printing Office to the Government Publishing Office.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.