GSA nominee acknowledges serious challenges

Agency suffers from an image problem that may be hard to undo

Martha Johnson will have a tough job if she is confirmed for the top position at the General Services Administration. President Barack Obama’s nominee would be GSA’s fifth administrator since April 2008 and would take the helm of an agency dogged by sagging morale, spotty leadership and fundamental questions about its business – namely whether it can consistently get the best deal for the government.

Johnson addressed those and other concerns June 3 during her Senate confirmation hearing, when she told members of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that she would be thrilled to return to GSA.

“‘Thrilled’ is actually a code word for me and for the agency,” she said. It's the word, she said, that she hopes GSA’s customers say about its services as the agency tries to win back skeptical customers.

Repairing a tarnished image is hardly the agency's only challenge. It needs to make federal buildings more energy efficient and environmentally friendly. It also must better use its unique buying position to demand more effective cybersecurity solutions for the government.

Committee Chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said at Johnson’s hearing that he would work to quickly get her nomination approved by the committee and then the Senate, noting that Obama made a wise choice in nominating her. The committee approved her nomination on June 8. Other senators noted her qualifications for the job, pointing out that she has worked with GSA from all angles: in industry, at a nonprofit and as the agency’s chief of staff from 1996 to 2001.

The committee prodded Johnson with a questionnaire that spans the spectrum of what she will face as the next administrator. Here are a few of her written responses.

Q: What would be your highest priorities as administrator?

A: My highest priority items would be:

1. Demand, model and secure an uncompromising demonstration of ethical behavior and an organizational culture of values and trust.

2. Guarantee consistent, prompt and high-value performance for our customers.

3. Attend to the demands of the Recovery Act.

4. Support the Obama administration’s promise of a more transparent government.

5. Build and nurture a strong leadership cadre.

I hope to build GSA so that I can leave the organization in an upward spiral of excellence in efficiently delivering value, a culture of leaders growing leaders, and a record for welcoming proper risk, experiment and innovation so that the government has a cutting-edge advantage in workforce effectiveness.

Q: How do you plan to re-instill confidence in GSA’s leadership?

A: As an outsider viewing GSA’s performance over the last eight years, I believe GSA experienced some rough waters and has rightfully made focused and earnest efforts to restore confidence and fix its problems.

In strategic terms, GSA must balance among the demands of customers, industry partners, oversight and stakeholders. There is a sense that GSA has been overly focused on internal operations and industry partners.

If confirmed, I will be seeking a healthy and broader balance among all parties. I will also put time and attention on sharing the story of GSA’s efforts to perform with rigor to earn a reputation for leadership and performance.

Q: Concerns have emerged about whether prices on GSA’s multiple-award schedules contracts are higher than the volume-discounted prices available to other large-scale buyers in the marketplace. How should GSA ensure its customers are getting the best deal?

A: I understand that GSA strives to award optimum pricing. However, many factors impact a contractor’s pricing strategy, which is not exercised until a requirement is defined. It is only at the order level that the contractor makes a final decision, based on the current circumstances and business environment, on pricing a proposal.

Q: GSA uses contractors to perform a number of functions closely associated with inherently governmental work. Are additional controls to prevent conflicts of interest needed?

A: It is my understanding that GSA has not experienced significant problems with the use of contractors supporting the contracting or program management functions since June 2000. In part, this is due to a clear understanding by both the government and the contractors of the role that contractors are to play and the effectiveness of the contractors in building the appropriate “Chinese walls” to avoid organizational conflicts of interest.

Q: Experts say the government can improve its cybersecurity through strategic purchasing. Does GSA offer agencies enough solutions to secure their information systems?

A: GSA’s unique and pivotal roles, both in federal governmentwide policy and technology strategy and in information technology acquisition, place a special burden on GSA to serve as a leader in securing the federal government’s information technology assets.

[Under my leadership], GSA would actively continue to work with the various security and incident management forums where security solutions and policies are developed. GSA would promote the increased use of managed security services available through GSA’s offerings that help ensure that agencies are better prepared to deal with cyber threats and vulnerabilities.

GSA would also help guide the technology industry through our acquisition processes, toward standardized minimum security requirements for all products and services that are purchased by the federal government.

GSA will continue to work with federal agencies to provide them with contract vehicles that enable them to procure the most cost-effective security products and solutions.

Q: Do you believe that GSA may need to make changes to IT and telecommunication contracts as a result of new open-government efforts?

A: As I see it, the rapid pace that the public and private industry adopt new technologies requires the federal government to ensure its IT and telecommunications contracts are periodically reviewed. The maturity of new technologies, including “cloud computing,” “virtualization,” and “green” initiatives, necessitates periodic reviews to ensure these contracts enable the taxpayer to benefit from technological advancement. Firms that do not upgrade their offerings will not be in demand in the future.

Contracting should never be an impediment to quickly adopting new technology.

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