GSA’s IT Services chief lays out route to success

Communication with customers will key the agency's move forward

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part one of a three-part interview with Edward O'Hare, GSA's assistant commissioner of he Federal Acquisition Service's IT Services division.

Washington Technology contributing editor Sami Lais talked (mostly listened) to the assistant commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service’s IT Services about his plans for ITS, the Networx transition, the Future Commercial Satellite Communications Acquisition, the evolutionary path of contracting at GSA, his interpretation of new administrator Martha Johnson’s concept of customer intimacy, technology and security.

Read Edward J. O’Hare’s resume and it’s easy to understand why he’s been one of the General Services Administration’s go-to guys since the mid 1990s; talk with him and the resume jumps off the page.

He’s got the look of a classic federal official — a stocky, ruddy-faced man of a certain age, with thin hair and wearing a charcoal gray suit, the plainest of white shirts and a discreetly patterned dark tie. You steel yourself for an hour of cautious governmentspeak.

And then he starts talking, torrentially, he interrupts himself. He puts his whole body into the conversation. He leans far forward and jabs the air with his hands to emphasize a point, he fires questions and praise at staff. He throws back his head and laughs. A lot. Mostly at himself. At the end of the hour, you leave thinking, "This guy’s orbit has some serious gravity."

Q: You’ve been assistant commissioner for close to a year now—

O’HARE: Eight months. I know because I ran into [former assistant commissioner] John Johnson the other day, and he said, "I’ve loved these past eight months!" [Laughs]

Q: You came in with a plan of action; how has that changed? What’s changed it?

O’HARE: Let me start here. On the Schedule side, I’ve got 125 people who are part of my organization.
Here’s what they’ve seen over the past 12 to 14 months: three acting administrators, a new deputy administrator, a new assistant commissioner. The deputy assistant commissioner has left and within IT Services and its six divisions, three new division directors.
Some might find that unsettling, but it should be no surprise. You’ve got a change of administration so a lot of that has to be expected.
A lot of people retired; the workforce is getting older; we know that, too.
It’s part of my job to understand what this looks like from the GS13 perspective, because they’re the people who get the work done, they award the contracts, they modify the contracts.
Change in and of itself isn’t bad, but you have to put the effort into communication. It’s why [communications and customer engagement specialist Rick Ferguson] is here. That’s why we’re talking. Why I have a person in charge of communications to industry, to customers, to my employees. So that’s the first thing.
Second, my actual office is in Fairfax, Va., but a lot of my employees are here [in Crystal City] so I try to be here as much as I’m there.

Q: What kind of direction or leadership are you looking for from new Administrator Martha Johnson?

O’HARE: I read her testimony from the confirmation hearings, and she talked about customer intimacy. What customer means [at ITS] depends on who you talk to. When we do customer surveys, we survey the vendors and the federal people who are buying our products and solutions. But customer intimacy is clearly something that resonates with this shop. We need to get closer to our customer.

Q: How do you mean?

O’HARE: We need to do a better job with our customers, both industry and federal government customers.
We need to execute the program. We need to do what it takes to get everybody transitioned to the Networx contract.
We need to award Schedule contracts faster, and with great certainty so companies can plan on it. Actually, I’m a little less interested in raw speed and more interested in when we tell somebody it’s going to take 110 days, that we do it in 110 days. Mostly we do; when we tell someone a mod[ification] is going to take 10 days, we do it in 10 days 95 percent of the time.
We need to sell a line. We have got to make the award on 8a STARS II [Streamlined Technology Acquisition Resources for Services II]. We have got to continue to do our SmartBuy awards on a timely basis. We have got to support the administration on the acquisitions we’re doing on cloud computing, etc.
We need to communicate. That’s Rick’s job; that’s why I brought him on board. We have to talk to our potential customers so they know who ITS is.

Q: And that is?

O’HARE: This goes back to when FAS was created. We combined the Federal Technology Service and the Federal Supply Service to create this organization. I have a big portfolio of services. I have the Schedules program — 5,000 vendors, $17 billion a year, based on commerciality.
I have the governmentwide acquisition contracts (GWACs) program: Alliant, 8aSTARS, Veterans Technology Services (VETS).
You might look at them and say, "Why two programs?"
Good reasons. One is based on commerciality; that’s the Schedules program. One is based on federally specified requirements; that’s the GWACs program.
We need to let people know what those programs are, what they can provide, what the value is, and — I should have led with this — what’s our mission? what’s our job?
Our job is to provide IT solutions to federal government agencies to make it easier and faster, and reduce the risk to them to contract for IT service.
We do it through this public-private partnership. We award contracts. Quality contracts for quality vendors, so when the federal government comes and uses our contracts, they know this is an upstanding vendor. They know when they buy something from us, it’s going to comply with all the laws, rules and regulations, the Trade Agreement Act. We do that for people who use our contracts so they don’t have to worry about that. When they use 8aSTARS or VETS, they know they’ve got a certified 8a vendor and they can take the socio-economic credit for it. 

In Part 2: With three satellite communications contracts between them set to expire in the next three years, GSA and the Defense Information Systems Agency teamed to offer a single replacement: the $5 billion, 10-year Future ComSatCom Services Acquisition contract. A bold move, but can it meet its goals? And how will cloud — and GSA — change the contracting landscape?

About the Author

Sami Lais is a special contributor to Washington Technology.

Reader Comments

Mon, Feb 8, 2010 Washington Maven

With due respect to Mr. O'Hare and the other fine people at GSA over the years: doesn't the present situation, as described by him, sound like it has the characteristics of the last 15 years, or more? Structural issues inside GSA, e.g., insufficient horizontal communication, no matter how organized; excessive processing times, etc. Nothing changes much except the plaint about not enough staff, retirements, new executives, etc. GSA people spend an inordinate amount of time on coping with and trying to rehab GSA's internal institution. The long gaps in leadership at any level are not necessarily bad, because the inward focus only intensifies when new executives, including appointees, show up. Then they want to make a lot of changes. Why should we expect any more from GSA now than from the many "new" regimes at FAS, its former elements, and from the GSA front office. Same old, same old, eh?

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