The Choreography of Budget Day

Months of planning, repeated testing, and a whole lot of paper go into an annual Washington ritual.

The Government Printing Office (GPO) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) hold an event to release and distribute President Obama's budget for FY2011 to credentialed members of the press on February 1, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO / Tim Sloan (Photo credit should read TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Feb. 1, 2015, 3 p.m.

At 7 a.m. Monday, the Gov­ern­ment Pub­lish­ing Of­fice’s trucks will be rar­ing to go, filled with thou­sands of cop­ies, totalling mil­lions of pages, of a new pub­lic­a­tion pre­cious few have been al­lowed to see: a hard-copy out­line of Pres­id­ent Obama’s hopes and dreams.

By 8 a.m., print ver­sions of Obama’s fisc­al 2016 budget sub­mis­sion will be at the Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Budget and on Cap­it­ol Hill, where cam­er­as will await — an an­nu­al only-in-Wash­ing­ton me­dia ritu­al.

GPO’s di­git­al team, mean­while, will be stand­ing by, watch­ing the clock tick to 11:30 a.m., the mo­ment when the budget can enter the pub­lic do­main elec­tron­ic­ally. It’ll take them about 10 seconds to move the files from an in­tern­al test en­vir­on­ment in­to a format the world can see.

Craft­ing the pro­posed budget in­volves count­less meet­ings and in­tense ana­lys­is, a pro­cess that starts al­most as soon as the last one ends. Once it’s writ­ten — the pro­posed money al­loc­ated down to the dol­lar — it’s turned over to GPO, which is charged with pro­du­cing the ex­pans­ive doc­u­ment and its ap­pendix, ana­lys­is, and ac­com­pa­ny­ing his­tor­ic­al tables.

“We know when it’s com­ing [every year],” Ric Dav­is, GPO’s chief tech­no­logy of­ficer, said, “but at the same time — and even though we know what we’re do­ing, and we know the pro­cess and gen­er­ally the same people are here — there is still a lot of work in­volved just to make sure that we get it ab­so­lutely right.”

Last Monday, OMB gave the budget’s di­git­al files to GPO, trans­mit­ting it us­ing a se­cure chan­nel to en­sure the budget isn’t tampered with in any way, Dav­is said. The two agen­cies work in tan­dem to re­view what’s been trans­ferred, double-check­ing all is the same.

But the doc­u­ment isn’t just put on the site as is. That wouldn’t be user-friendly. In­stead, it’s com­piled in­to volumes and chapters, as the di­git­al team cre­ates the look and feel of how the budget will ap­pear to the pub­lic on the web­site, adding an­swers to fre­quently asked ques­tions: What is the budget? Who is the au­thor? How many pages is it?

Then the test­ing of the di­git­ized doc­u­ment be­gins. The team puts the budget up in a test space, in­tensely scru­tin­iz­ing the product be­cause they have a dead­line they just can’t miss: “As soon as we get the green light for re­leas­ing it, we’re ready to make it avail­able,” Dav­is said. And the di­git­al budget goes on­line, just as it has since fisc­al 1996, avail­able on GPO’s fed­er­al di­git­al sys­tem, www.fd­sys.gov.

The clicks be­gin with an es­tim­ated 60,000 views on­line the first day of the doc­u­ment’s re­lease and likely an­oth­er 25,000 from the ac­com­pa­ny­ing mo­bile app that GPO first cre­ated for the fisc­al 2013 budget, GPO spokes­man Gary Somer­set wrote in an email.

GPO also con­ver­ted the ma­ter­i­al in­to three books. There are cop­ies for Con­gress, the GPO re­tail and on­line book­stores, and OMB — and spe­cial leath­er-bound books for the pres­id­ent, said John Craw­ford, GPO’s man­aging dir­ect­or of plant op­er­a­tions.

The book con­sist­ing of the fisc­al 2016 pro­posed budget went to the print­ing press Monday even­ing and was com­pleted mid­week; the two oth­ers books — the ap­pendix and the ana­lyt­ic­al per­spect­ive — were done by the week­end. Then they were com­bined in­to shrink-wrapped sets and boxed, with Sat­urday crews charged with prep­ping them for de­liv­ery.

That’s 15,000 cop­ies in total of a roughly 150-page budget; a nearly 1,500-page ap­pendix; and a roughly 400-page ana­lyt­ic­al per­spect­ive, all pub­lished in about a work week. And a CD-ROM that also in­cludes the doc­u­ment’s his­tor­ic­al tables.

The print­ing pro­cess used to take roughly five times longer, with em­ploy­ees hand-feed­ing the ma­ter­i­als in­to ma­chines. “It was labor-in­tens­ive, trust me,” Craw­ford said. “Hun­dreds and hun­dreds of people.”

When the budget’s four volumes were print-only, about 100,000 total cop­ies were pro­duced, but that num­ber de­creased once the Web gained trac­tion. And in this di­git­al age, it takes the man­power of few­er than 100 em­ploy­ees to pro­duce the books, a de­crease that stems from the 1990s pur­chase of a print­er that cuts out the many te­di­ous steps.

“It’s done so much bet­ter,” Craw­ford said, “and so much faster.”

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