GSA chief-to-be vows to prod Networx transition

Lawmakers grill nominee on changeover strategy

A return to the General Services Administration, this time as its administrator, seems likely for Martha Johnson, the agency’s chief of staff for five years during the Clinton administration.

Promising to push for a quick confirmation, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee chair Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) called President Barack Obama’s nominee “a wise choice” to lead GSA.

At Johnson’s confirmation hearing earlier this week, Lieberman and the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), asked Johnson what she would do to reverse GSA’s failures of leadership in acquisition, property management, cybersecurity and contracting.

GSA’s 10-year, $68 billion Networx telecommunications contract was a specific target of the committee. “Networx has raised management concerns regarding the ability of GSA to be a solutions provider for the entire federal government in such a large arena as telecommunications services and goods,” the committee said. What would Johnson do, committee members asked, “to ensure that agencies address gaps in their planning and avoid delays and unnecessary costs in the transition to Networx?”

Johnson first emphasized the importance of completing the transition before bridge contracts from FTS2001 expire, the savings that would result from a speedy transition, and her belief that the move depended on a partnership between GSA and agencies.

Then she fired a shot over the bow of agencies and GSA Networx transition managers. “I believe that the Networx transition is moving too slowly, and at the current rate, the government may not complete the transition to the Networx contract before the current contracts expire,” Johnson told the committee.

Agencies have fully transitioned only 15.6 percent of FTS2001 services, “which translates to $15.2 million per month across government in lost savings,” she said.

If confirmed, she vowed to “raise the level of dialogue on the Networx transition, so that senior agency officials and newly appointed agency heads are aware of the importance of completing the transition in the time frame available.”

But she balked at some of the committee’s criticism of the contract. “It was awarded on schedule,” she said, “and offers the lowest prices available in the government marketplace that are 10 to 40 percent lower than prices offered on FTS2001.”

While promising to maintain pressure on agencies and staff to do what it takes to get the transition moving, she also hinted at a possible increase in GSA’s acquisition staff. “The key to competing large complex acquisitions such as Networx on schedule is having an adequate staff of highly skilled technical experts with deep program management experience in sufficient quantity,” she said.

Networx menu additions?

Responding to criticism by Alan Paller, research director of the SANS Institute, that GSA could do more to strengthen federal cybersecurity through strategic use of federal buying power, Johnson agreed that all GSA procurements should have minimum cybersecurity requirements.

Access by federal agencies to new technologies such as cloud computing, virtualization and green initiatives as they reach maturity does not require, as the committee suggested, changes to IT and telecommunication contracts, Johnson said. It does necessitate “periodic reviews to ensure these contracts enable the taxpayer to benefit from technological advancement.”

Driving companies to make such advanced technologies available on contracts would be unlikely to be an issue, she suggested. “Firms that do not upgrade their offerings will not be in demand in the future,” she said.

Both AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. in recent weeks have unveiled new cloud computing solutions, the component of which, if not the commercial solution, are available on Networx. The ability to go to Networx and get such solutions tailored to the unique needs of government is a huge benefit of the contract, said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting Inc. “Special billing and operational software are needed to give government the kind of accountability it needs,” he pointed out.

Collins criticized GSA for a perceived failure to meet the needs of client agencies, as evidenced by a flow of new agency contract vehicles that compete with those of GSA.

Johnson acknowledged the challenge the agency has “around the talent and acquisition skills available” at GSA, but, with five different leaders in just over a year, the agency’s lack of a cohesive leadership position could hardly be a surprise.

A strong supporter of GSA’s original mission at its inception by President Harry Truman in 1949 to streamline the federal government purchasing process, Johnson rejected a role for GSA as a monolithic source for purchasing. Competition among contracts often brings better value and lower prices, she said, but too much overlap can produce the opposite effect.

Johnson is a vice president at Computer Sciences Corp. She was chief of staff at GSA from 1996 to 2001, where, Collins said, “she helped lead the agency agency at a time of substantial change, including implementation of the Clinger-Cohen Act.”

A committee vote is tentatively scheduled for Monday, a committee aide said. “Then it’s up to [Senate] leadership to schedule its vote.”

About the Author

Sami Lais is a special contributor to Washington Technology.

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