GSA chief's resignation evokes sympathy, hope for reform

Industry experts call for significant reorganization and improved operational efficiency at vital agency.

Federal contracting experts had mixed statements of support for former General Services Administrator Martha Johnson, who resigned April 2, with calls for urgent reform in the agency she led.

Johnson stepped down along with two senior assistants following release of an inspector general’s report detailing close to $1 million in lavish spending by GSA employees at the 2010 Western Regions Conference in Las Vegas, including contractor rule breaking.

“This is a real shame,” said Warren Suss, president of federal consultancy Suss Consulting.

“I think it’s more of a shame because of the loss [Johnson] means to the agency. In the current budgetary environment and in the current political environment, this is a time when the government needs an agency like GSA, an agency that can deliver efficiency in acquisition and can step up to its role as a central buying organization and demonstrate its value to the rest of the government.”

“My guess is this will lead to some significant reorganization and maybe to improved operational efficiency in the agency down the road. But in the near term it’s definitely a black eye for GSA,” Suss said.

Bob Guerra, partner at Guerra Kiviat Inc., said: “It’s an absurdity that the administrator of the GSA should resign over something that happened a few weeks – maybe a couple of months – after she got into her position.

“Martha has done incredible things at GSA,” he said. “The biggest issue at GSA was not whether or not they had a conference of some sort; the biggest issue at GSA was the morale, and that’s where she was concentrating. As a management executive, she was working on stabilizing the workforce, improving morale – important things that any executive does.”

“I don’t think she just upped and quit. I think what happened was she told, you’re ‘upping and quiting,’” Guerra added.

But Guy Timberlake, CEO of The American Small Business Coalitions, said he thought Johnson resigned “because it was the right thing to do."

"I'm now looking at the trickle-down effect and how it may influence contracts for the rest of the year," he said.

Timberlake said he is concerned about the impact this incident will have on the GSA and whether the agency will be able to fulfill its acquisition requirements for the rest of the fiscal year.

Among other items, the IG report found GSA failed to follow contracting regulations in many of the procurements associated with conferences. Other failures included disclosing a competitor's proposal price to a favored contractor and awarding a $58,000 contract to a large business in violation of small-business set-asides.

"I'm less troubled about the 'whys' having to do with the procurements than I am about the 'hows'," said Stan Soloway, CEO and president of the Professional Services Council.

Soloway said he worries about a hair-trigger decision toward new policy changes based on "one bad job procurement."

He said he hoped there would not be a big rush to change laws or policy.

Industry expert Mark Amtower agreed. "This is a case in point for training," he said, adding that Johnson was an unnecessary casualty.

"I listen to rumblings of warts all the time. She didn't have any," he said. "She was well-respected among her employees and the industry and that's hard to accomplish.”

Although there may be some contract policy tweaking, its effect on GSA contracting should be minimal because "this is mostly a PBS [Public Buildings Service] issue -- I don't see it becoming an FAS issue," Amtower said.

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