GSA now on the fast track, top exec says

Johnson plans to prepare agency for rapid growth

After spending her first few weeks on the job prowling the halls of the General Services Administration building and talking to staff members, the agency’s new administrator, Martha Johnson, has hit the speaker’s trail to deliver a message of change.

“I accepted President Obama’s nomination to be the General Services administrator basically to transform GSA into the big engine that will,” she said in a keynote address at industry group TechAmerica’s Transparency and Transformation Through Technology conference March 23.

Johnson will deliver a keynote speech at 1105 Media's FOSE trade show on March 25.

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“I want you to think of GSA as a change agent for government,” she said. “We will do this with information technology, with building technology and actually the human technology, in partnership with both our industry partners and our customers.”

One of those changes is how government — and GSA — regard the workplace. Out is the old industrial model with time clocks and cubicles. Government put a toe in the waters of the new view of work with telework she said.

“During the snowstorms five or six weeks ago, more than 65 percent of GSA employees were online and working from home,” she said. Johnson recalled having her own swearing-in conducted over the phone while she was snowed in.

The convergence of geographic and carbon footprints also will change the workplace. “These and other notions of change are influencing how we think at GSA about what we do,” she said.

She likened changes in store to the mid-1990s when the Clinger-Cohen legislation took away agency mandates to procure through GSA. The agency had to learn to market its offerings and compete, she said.

When Johnson left GSA in 2001, the agency was doing $35 billion in business. It’s since grown to $65 billion. “That’s a lot of growth,” she said. “Now the question becomes: Do we want to win in this market?”

What if that business were to grow to $90 billion or $200 billion, Johnson asked. “I think that kind of growth would radically change the way we do things.” GSA accounts for about 13 percent of government spending, she said. “What if we were 20 percent?”

Such scenarios and the change they would require are why she’s added a new staff member whose job will be to create such scenarios and conduct business analytics and risk management to prepare the agency for such growth.

New mandates, legislation that expands GSA's business or an acceleration of government use of health care technology could push fast growth on GSA, she said. And at least one catalyst for change is entirely in the agency's GSA’s hands: “We could win more business by performing better," she said.

The open government, transparency and change pushed by the Obama administration is giving the agency a chance to improve customer service by partnering with customers and industry, she said. “Think of GSA as a membrane between industry and government, government and solutions.”

Agencies are being urged to embrace innovation. However, Johnson said, “innovation creates risk.” Agencies should partner with GSA, she said, “because we can absorb some of their risk.”

The agency’s size, business expertise and unique position virtually “embedded” in agencies governmentwide give it a long view of trends and best practices, she said. “We have broad shoulders. We are big. Our broad shoulders should allow us to take risks in ways that other organizations just can’t.”

“We’ve incorporated green building, photovoltaics, sail-like things that go over atriums and filter light, dual-flush toilets and waterless urinals — GSA is not afraid of anything,” she said.

GSA is about to deliver to agencies a greenhouse gas tracking tool, populated with data, that will let agencies do their reporting against the executive order, she said.

As culture vice president at Computer Sciences Corp., Johnson helped build collaboration tools. Not divergent brainstorming tools such as blogs where ideas just pile up, she said, but convergent tools that lead to solutions.

Nothing short of completely “reverse engineering our processes” to serve the concept of letting customer needs pull the agency’s way of working will do, she said.

“I believe in the efficacy of work,” she said. “The work you do should be the way you change. That’s the philosophy I intend to bring to GSA.”

There’s a clincher, she said. “We have an arena like no other in which to demonstrate what we can do.

“If NASA has moon shots and DARPA has the Internet, we have sustainability and open government. We can be a proving ground for change.”

About the Author

Sami Lais is a special contributor to Washington Technology.

Reader Comments

Fri, Mar 26, 2010

All of this sounds - foreing to me- a small business owner here in the USA- We see (and other small business like me) that getting into GSA schedule is for the "big" guys who can afford to hire a former GSA employee for big bucks to help in getting in - We received tens of e-mails every week with susch offers for their services. I hope that the new GSA boss think of democratizing the use of the GSA- right now, I as an small business- see GSA as an entity I can not afford to access for my business (IT services provider) Could the process of getting into GSA be simplified and assisted directly by GSA -as oppose to intermediary vendors who which biggest claim is to have been previously employed by GSA?. I love her entusiasm and apparent genuine desire to address the country's needs - in order to remain competitive.

Thu, Mar 25, 2010 J.D.Bailey USA

GSA could (I hope) help improve the economy, expand the domestic industrial-base for DoD, bring jobs home, and build small-business technology gadgets/products manufacturing. GSA for decades has increasingly identified common and technology gadgets/products as USA made when the only USA source was the USA reseller of foreign made and imported products saying the product was made in the USA. Some examples, there are far too many: [Common] swing machines are not made in the USA. All (industrial and home) swing machines are foreign made products. [Technology] GPS (Garmin, Magellan...) are not made in the USA. Many patents and companies are USA owned, but GPS (Garmin, Magellan...) are made in Asia. [Trivial] paper-clips, fabrics, wire, cloths... made in China, India.... When the USA Government, including DoD, obtain products from GSA, I would like to know the tax dollars are supporting our domestic economy, US citizens, and the industrial-base needed by DoD for US. Sometimes I call GSA "Government Sustainment Aid" for foreign governments and manufacturers. I hope, in a year or two, that the new GSA Boss will be able to tell US, the Congress, and President that GSA money is used to expand the industrial-base and create good paying jobs in the USA.

Thu, Mar 25, 2010 Tbone

I agree, why are these large primes getting contracts that aren't their core business?? Forget small business set asides let's just use some common sense. It's ridiculous to talk about clock hours without a pay for performance situation. That is more important than working from home.

Thu, Mar 25, 2010 D, York

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Thu, Mar 25, 2010 Observer II

As filtered in this report, she seem overwhelmingly drawn to buildings and green issues. Silent, here, on the policies and processes of acquisition, as well as thorny problems like competition, misuse of schedules and GWACs, negligent contractor oversight, and enforcing contractor performance mandates. The physical things she is interested in are far easier to address. What is she going to do to press the President's procurement reform agenda? Many feds and lots of contractors are hoping: nothing.

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