Embattled GSA Leader Calls It Quits

Johnson will pursue another route to reform government

P> Roger Johnson, administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration, leaves his post just as recent procurement reforms eliminate much of the troubled agency's role in overseeing information technology procurement.

Those reforms transfer much of GSA's oversight of large computer systems buys to the Office of Management and Budget and to the agencies themselves.

In the meantime, Johnson's departure has prompted mixed reviews on his tenure.

On Jan. 25, Johnson announced his retirement, effective March 1. GSA, which coordinates purchases of information technology and the management of government property, has been one of the targets of Republican attacks against big government and micromanagement. Johnson -- whose experience as GSA administrator prompted him to change party affiliation from Republican to Democrat -- said a fundamental change in government management is needed.

But he concluded that he can be more effective as a private citizen, particularly given his experience both in government and as an executive of a major computer company. Johnson was chief executive for Western Digital Corp., Irvine, Calif., before taking his position in July 1993 with the Clinton administration.

Within GSA, Johnson was disliked by many employees who circulated a newsletter critical of his management. Johnson was also the subject of newspaper reports alleging that he used GSA employees to perform non-government tasks.

Johnson also appeared to do little to assuage industry concerns, particularly regarding a computer-buying program known as the GSA Schedule. Critics claim the process of negotiating prices for computer systems is needlessly complex. Many object to the requirement -- which predated Johnson -- that computer companies offer the federal government the best possible price. Companies claim this requirement hinders their ability to offer one-time discounts to other customers. It also exposes them to charges of not negotiating with the GSA in good faith.

Still, Johnson has supporters. "GSA looks much better now than when Johnson arrived," said Paul Caggiano, president of the Washington, D.C.- based Coalition for Government Procurement.

Olga Grkavac, vice president, Information Technology Association of America, said Johnson took a leadership role in downsizing GSA and may have saved it from elimination. He cut operating expenses 17 percent and reduced employment by 20 percent.

Johnson believes that significant improvements were made to the procurement process during his tenure. "[The procurement process] isn't fixed, but [businesses that tried it previously and didn't like it should] give it another try," he stated. He cited the agency's efforts to streamline procurement systems by using electronic commerce, such as the GSA Advantage system, and to improve internal agency communications with vendors.

"Some would hold [Johnson] accountable for instant success, but reform doesn't happen overnight. He's done a credible job trying to re-engineer the agency and procurement," said Bert Concklin, president of the Professional Services Council, Vienna, Va.

Peter Boulay, a consultant with STMS, based in Sterling, Va., agreed that Johnson did a credible job to reduce the obstacles that vendors face in selling to the government, but he still has reservations about the government's information technology procurement processes.

Finding a permanent replacement for Johnson in the near future will be unlikely because it is an election year. Instead, an acting administrator, most likely from inside the agency, probably will be named.

The person who takes charge of GSA should be someone with direct, high-level government experience, said Concklin. It's "absolutely critical" that whoever is appointed also has some sort of information technology credentials, he said.

Johnson will return home to California and said although he has no plans to start working full time immediately, he plans to write a book, as well as teach, do consulting and campaign for Clinton's re-election.

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