Mission Makeover For GSA?

Despite widespread criticism and talk of cuts, the General Services Administration could emerge stronger than ever, and wind up the government maven for business process reengineering

The General Services Administration may have found a political diamond in the rough: A draft procurement law in the Senate could preserve a critical, bureaucracy-sustaining role for the beleaguered agency -- even while giving it a key part in attempting a massive reform of government operations.

If the law earns strong support from the White House and Congress -- a big if -- the GSA could gain control of a myriad of information technology programs. And it could use that control to force fundamental reform of agencies, halving the federal workforce from 2 million to 1 million employees, said a GSA official.

The change would put GSA in charge of the government reinvention effort -- and it would make GSA official taskmaster for agencywide business process reengineering, the popular management ideology for doing more with less.

The new role -- if GSA could pull it off -- would be a dramatic change of fortune for the troubled agency, which has faced a barrage of criticism for micromanaging agency computer spending and general management incompetence.

Observers are understandably skeptical, saying the GSA now has limited power to affect agencies' reorganization proposals or spending plans. And it would have to marshal an impressive array of political allies to enhance its statutory authority -- at a time when its administrator, former Western Digital CEO Roger Johnson, faces charges of misusing taxpayer money, and when many are questioning the agency's very reason for existence.

"I don't think anything will save them from major cuts," said Robert Dornan, a vice president at Federal Sources Inc., McLean, Va.

Still, GSA may have key political support. By the end of February, Maine Republican Sen. William Cohen, chairman of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs oversight panel, will propose new procurement legislation to strengthen central oversight of procurement plans and promote agency reinvention schemes, said a committee staff member.

Cohen has not decided whether GSA, the White House's Office of Management and Budget or a new agency should get the job. But the chosen agency will likely be given strong control over agency budgets and critical technology buys, said the staff member. "Someone [must] be able to pull the budget on programs when they start to go awry.... If not, the house of cards will fall down," the staff member said.

Should OMB inherit the new role, GSA's infotech division may find itself suddenly reporting to OMB Director Alice Rivlin.

Perhaps not coincidentally, GSA officials have raised their infotech profile.

One effort would phase out the agency's practice of issuing so-called delegations of procurement authority. Agencies must receive these DPAs from GSA before they proceed with large computer systems buys. Now, instead of DPAs, GSA would require that each agency do a business process reengineering study -- before proceeding with a computer systems buy.

The purpose would be to help agencies get the most of new information technology programs, said Frank McDonough, GSA's current deputy chief of information technology. GSA, as the government's BPR czar, would only intervene if a program subsequently went off track, he said.

The new approach will be phased in during the next few months, but "by the end of the year, we'll get a little tighter" on enforcement, McDonough said.

It is not clear what this change would mean in practice -- beyond creating a business boom for BPR consultants -- or how GSA would intervene if programs get off track. "GSA will do a good job reengineering itself, but I don't think it can reengineer other agencies," said Dornan. "I don't see what GSA can do to reengineer the Transportation Department, for example." He also questioned whether GSA has the legal authority to make such a move.

Nonetheless, GSA appears committed to turning the present hunger for radical change, reengineering and government reinvention into political and budgetary assets. "We see ground swell from all the stake holders," including the administration, Congress and industry for major changes in GSA operations, said Joe Thompson, GSA's commissioner for information technology services. Another GSA cost-saving proposal is the creation of "Affinity" programs that coordinate similar programs in different agencies, said a GSA official. For example, the FBI, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Customs and the Department of Agriculture all need to track the movement or goods and people across the border of the United States, he said.

The effort might yield savings, said Dornan, but its success would depend upon cooperation between the government's many agencies. Nonetheless, GSA appears to think that the best defense is offense. With a budget of $200 million, its 17,000 employees oversee much of the government's real estate, automobile fleet, procurement policy and phone network.

As part of a White House cost-cutting initiative, GSA's Johnson offered a list of trims Dec. 19 worth $1.4 billion over the next three years. He also proposed to streamline GSA, cutting staff by 50 percent or more over the next few years.

One option would allow GSA employees to create employer-owned corporations to manage some GSA tasks, such as maintaining the government's computer-purchasing catalogs, known as the multiple schedule award program.

But that's not all. Since December, GSA officials have prepared a paper outlining $24.4 billion in cuts, mostly through other agencies' computer spending plans. The paper, titled "Strategies for Implementation of President's Initiative For Long-Term Savings And To Reduce Government," urges:

-Saving $2.5 billion by imposing a 20 percent cut on agencies' computer procurement.

-Saving $10 billion by better management of large-scale information technology systems being developed by the Federal Aviation Administration, the Veterans Administration and other agencies.

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