The procurement leadership vacuum

The resignation of GSA Administrator Perry will impact contracting community and the agency's realignment

When Stephen Perry's resignation as administrator of General Services Administration becomes effective Oct. 31, the top two politically appointed leadership roles in the federal procurement community will be vacant.

Perry's resignation has been long expected. He has served since 2001 and has overseen several efforts to reform the agency, culminating in a restructuring that will blend two of the agency's three divisions into one organization. After Perry signed the order to formally create the new Federal Acquisition Service out of the bone and sinew of the Federal Supply and Federal Technology services, procurement observers began to whisper that he had accomplished his final planned milestone and would soon step down.

Perry proved them right with an announcement last week.

But his departure does not happen in a vacuum. Although it's common for political appointees to leave their offices before the end of a president's term, such actions don't often amplify an existing void. Perry's does, however, because David Safavian, former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, recently resigned his post. He was arrested — and indicted last week — on felony charges of lying to GSA and the Senate regarding lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The charges are not related to procurement or Safavian's tenure at OFPP.

Senior career employees at the two organizations will lead the agencies for now. GSA Deputy Administrator David Bibb will become acting administrator when Perry leaves, and Robert Burton, OFPP's associate administrator, has temporarily stepped into Safavian's place.

The repercussions of Perry's resignation reverberate in two directions. Outward, his absence will affect the larger procurement community. Inward, he leaves the agency when it is in the midst of a makeover and already missing experienced leaders following a wave of retirements during the past few months.

Looking inward

Perry said the reorganization is the latest phase of an ongoing improvement effort. GSA's internal investigations, which revealed that some field employees disregarded rules, were among the efforts he made to identify and fix problems, Perry said.

"Some of the issues we've dealt with in my tenure were issues we sought to discover and improve upon," he said. "We as an agency restated and recommitted ourselves to our agency's values and goals."

Some agencies shied away from GSA during the early days of what became a minor scandal, and some Defense Department officials doubted whether they should use GSA's services. "As we exposed some of our shortcomings, it caused some of our customer agencies to ask themselves if they could count on us," Perry said.

The agency launched Get It Right, a campaign to renew GSA's commitment to compliance and show customers its determination. Then GSA began its reorganization, which should streamline the agency and make it more compliant and accountable.

Although Perry will be leaving the agency when much work remains, he said he's confident that it will continue along the path he paved.

"That which remains, which is considerable, is on a very solid foundation with a committed team of capable managers," he said.

But Perry has his share of critics. Some consultants and others close to the procurement community and GSA say that the reorganization is not going smoothly, and that many employees have low morale and are unsure of their futures.

Bob Woods, former commissioner of FTS and now president of Topside Consulting, said he has disagreed all along with the strategy of blending the services. They serve different stakeholders and are fundamentally different businesses, he said.

"You've just crammed those together with the idea that somehow it'll be better," Woods said.

Perry's successor, who will have a relatively short time to accomplish something before the Bush administration leaves office in January 2009, will face serious challenges, Woods said.

"The morale issues over there could be dealt with fairly quickly," he said. GSA employees are "looking for stability and consistency, and they're not getting that. The customer issues are going to be more challenging. There are organizations that feel like GSA has let them down and has not acknowledged that they let them down."

"There's a grain of truth in all of" the criticisms, Perry said, citing instances in which the agency didn't operate as customers expected. "We are not as good as we can be, or as good as we need to be, but we are making continuous improvement."

However, he said, although some customers are not pleased with GSA, many are happy.

David Barram, Perry's immediate predecessor as GSA administrator, said the secret to effective leadership for a politically appointed administrator is to show the career staff — many of whom have been there long before the appointee's arrival and will still be there when the next one comes in — that they are on the same team.

"You can't fool an organization of good people, and you don't want them if they're not good people," he said. "If you want them to flourish, they have to know that you believe in them and you'll support them."

Looking outward

Observers are also concerned about the absence of anyone connected to procurement policy with Bush administration influence. Political appointees are rarely as experienced as their career-minded counterparts, but they have the ear of the executive branch.

"With all that's going on in the community and in the marketplace and on [Capitol] Hill, GSA has a seat at the table," said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council. "Having a confirmed administrator does make a difference."

"We are in a very, very, very perilous time for the procurement system," said Steve Kelman, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and a Federal Computer Week columnist. "We have no leadership at the top."

The vacuum comes as agencies are increasingly nervous about doing anything out of the ordinary, Kelman said. The situation has been exacerbated by media reports on hurricane relief contracting written by reporters who don't understand the nuances of the procurement system, he said. In Kelman's worst-case scenario, lawmakers could return to a restricted, by-the-book system that echoes that of the 1980s.

"I think we are in a real crisis situation," he said. "It's a really dangerous time."

The show must go on

Stephen Perry, left, steps down as the General Services Administration's administrator during a time of change, including several ongoing initiatives. They include:

  • GSA's reorganization — The blending of the two sides of GSA's acquisition efforts has passed several milestones, including Perry's approval in September of an order to create the new Federal Acquisition Service. More work remains, however, to complete the transition from the old structure to the new.
  • Networx — GSA is accepting bids on Networx, a broad network and communications contract that it will award next year. Once it is in place, agencies will begin moving their telecommunications and networking services from FTS 2001 and other contracts to Networx.
  • Alliant — Planned as a broad information technology contract to replace older governmentwide acquisition contracts, Alliant has been moving slowly. John Johnson, assistant commissioner of service development and delivery, was recently put in charge of the effort.

— Michael Hardy

GSA comings and goings

Stephen Perry's resignation from the General Services Administration is only the latest in a stream of high-level departures this year.

Preceding him in leaving GSA were:

  • Sandra Bates, commissioner of the Federal Technology Service, in January.
  • Donna Bennett, commissioner of the Federal Supply Service, in July.
  • Neal Fox, assistant commissioner of the Office of Commercial Acquisition, in August.

But the period has been marked by significant arrivals, too, including:

  • Barbara Shelton, former administrator of the agency's Mid-Atlantic Region, who came to GSA headquarters in January as acting FTS commissioner and was later named acting commissioner of the new Federal Acquisition Service.
  • Deidre Lee, former director of procurement and acquisition policy at the Defense Department, who now heads FAS' Office of Integrated Technology Services.

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