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Ulterior Motives

June 2011

Private sector printers have been bad-mouthing in-plants since time immemorial. Hungry for business, they have long tried to shame governments/universities/companies into privatizing their printing, with claims of their own superior prices, quality and service.

So it's no surprise that the Washington State Department of Printing (PRT) has been enduring an onslaught of challenges, mudslinging and ridicule in recent years from the folks who want to print the state's work. Their bellyaching got the attention of a few politicians, who have called for the closure of the award-winning in-plant. But as in life, where the loudest are often the least informed, the data shows a different reality than those printers and senators were trying to portray.

In late April the State Auditor's Office finally released its report on the in-plant. Among the conclusions: "There is little clear cost savings to be gained" by eliminating the Department of Printing and using private companies; "Private printers do not necessarily charge lower costs"; and "Competition, not privatization, is the most important factor in keeping prices low."

Is anyone surprised by these findings?

It's hard to blame those printers for trying. Times are tough. They feel they deserve this business. But as the audit report noted, competition, not privatization will bring taxpayers the best deal. To better enable it, the report recommends allowing agencies to obtain competitive bids from private printers. And honestly, if a commercial printer can truly provide better, cheaper service for a project, it should win that business.

This is a far better idea than full privatization, which only ensures the parent organization has no recourse but to rely on the private sector (which, frankly, will have little motivation to continue offering those sweet deals once the in-plant is gone). Also, competing with outside printers compels in-plants to become sharper, improve their services and cut waste.

I'm glad to note that, when faced with claims of the in-plant's inefficiency, the state hired an outside auditor to collect data, rather than just trusting hearsay (and ulterior motives). Too many in-plants have been closed without any effort to gather performance and cost data.

The audit report likely made State Auditor Brian Sonntag grit his teeth, after earlier calling for PRT to be privatized. The report's tacit acknowledgement that perhaps having an in-plant isn't such a bad thing after all was validated when PRT was named the recipient of the In-Plant Printing and Mailing Association's prestigious Management Award, which recognizes it as an outstanding in-house publishing operation that excels in efficient management practices.

The IPMA award couldn't have come at a better time. With the release of the auditor's report just days later, it was basically a double slap in the face to those senators and their mudslinging commercial printer allies who were screaming about PRT's inefficiency, without any data to back them up. No word yet on how they're taking this one-two punch.



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