Planning for the future

Shelton works toward a time when FTS will no longer exist

Barbara Shelton never meant to work for the government. It was not part of her career plans, not part of her life. But as John Lennon's saying goes, life is what happens while you're busy making other plans. And so it was for Shelton.

After working for Pennsylvania's state government and the General Services Administration's regional office in Philadelphia, Shelton became acting commissioner of GSA's Federal Technology Service this year.

She holds the reins of the organization during a tumultuous time. GSA officials plan to merge two of the agency's three main divisions, FTS and the Federal Supply Service. They are also still feeling the reverberations of procurement violations at many of FTS' Client Support Centers nationwide. Amid all of that, former Commissioner Sandy Bates retired earlier this year.

"Walking into a building when you don't know any of the people who get on the elevator with you is difficult," Shelton said.

As a successful industrial engineer working as a technology consultant for Philip Morris in New York City, Shelton never planned to return to her hometown of Harrisburg, Pa. But in the mid-1990s, her parents died within six months of each other. That was when her life — and career — took a sudden turn.

Shelton returned to Harrisburg to tend to family matters. While there, then-Gov. Tom Ridge offered her a job as deputy secretary of procurement for the state.

"What I found particularly attractive was that it was a temporary job," Shelton said. "I was not obligated to stay in Harrisburg."

But she found the work rewarding, and she was good at it. In 2000, Shelton became deputy secretary of administration at the state's Labor and Industry Department. In 2002, she moved to Philadelphia to become mid-Atlantic regional administrator for GSA.

In the private sector, she said, she did not have many opportunities to do work that had an impact on people. When she began working for Pennsylvania's government, she made technology purchasing decisions that affected the state's ability to deliver welfare benefits or distribute road salt to keep traffic flowing during snow storms.

"Those are the kinds of things that make a real difference in people's lives," she said.

GSA Administrator Stephen Perry encouraged Shelton to move to the federal government. She said she enjoyed her time in Philadelphia but finds working in Washington, D.C., to be more satisfying.

When she worked in Harrisburg, she said, she was at the state capital with Ridge and other government officials. She has a similar arrangement in Washington now. But while working in Philadelphia, she felt more removed.

"There's very little sense that you're working for the president of the United States," Shelton said. "It's harder to get things done."

Even so, she said she was comfortable at her GSA regional position, especially because it was only a two-hour drive from Harrisburg. Nonetheless, Perry convinced her to come to Washington, she said.

"Mr. Perry and I work very well together," she said. "He's the kind of boss who gives very broad direction, and that's the environment I work best in."

Shelton said she weighed the options and decided to take the chance. Her willingness to take such leaps of faith may be attributable to her father's influence. Shelton is the oldest of five sisters, and William Shelton, her father, refused to let his daughters limit themselves.

"He never made us feel that there was anything we couldn't do," she said. He infused the family home with a respect for education, she added, and taught spiritual and moral principles that inform Shelton's choices.

As a teenager, she said, "you have pressures to make decisions, not always the right ones. I firmly believe there are points in a person's life when you make decisions that can change the course" of life.

Now that she's in Washington, she's dividing her attention between running FTS' daily operations and planning for the day when FTS won't exist as a separate organization.

Part of her job is to restore confidence in an organization that has been tarnished by the actions of some employees.

"What we have to do is show our customers that by coming to GSA, they are doing the right thing," she said.

Bates said Shelton is the ideal choice to guide GSA through this time of change.

"She has both the management and the technical background," Bates said. "She is an engineer, [and] she understands organizational dynamics."

Shelton has not only the right education and background but also the right temperament, Bates added.

"She has a very strong personality," Bates said. "She can see right through to a clear picture. She asks very good questions. She's very analytical. I think she's ideally suited."

The Barbara Shelton file

Position: Acting commissioner of the General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service.

Age: 49.

Education: Shelton graduated in 1979 from the University of Pittsburgh with a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering. She earned her MBA from Columbia University in 1994.

Last book read: "Hunted Past Reason" by Richard Matheson.

Favorite vacation spot: Nags Head, N.C.

Family: Shelton has four younger sisters.

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