GSA's former chief financial officer tackles a leadership void

When Kathleen Turco left her job as chief financial officer at the General Services Administration to lead the agency’s Office of Governmentwide Policy (OGP), many people wondered whether she was being punished.

The office is one of the few policy-making organizations in the government, and its policies and regulations can have an effect on all government agencies. But in its 15-year history, OGP has lacked direction, and many agencies have dismissed it as irrelevant, Turco said. She intends to change that.

During her eight years as CFO, Turco said she laid a solid foundation for GSA’s financial office, and someone else needed to have the chance to add the next layer. At OGP, she has a new foundation to build. Now, instead of dollar figures, she’s overseeing policies related to a range of activities that include aircraft management, technology strategy and the Regulatory Information Service Center. Her purview also includes government acquisition, and she’s quickly familiarizing herself with the Federal Acquisition Regulation.

She met recently with senior editor Matthew Weigelt to discuss how she’s working to change the perception of OGP — internally and in the entire government.

FCW: Why did you leave the CFO position for the job at OGP?

Kathleen Turco: I just felt it was time to move on. I think that you shouldn’t stay too long at the party. You should let others come in. You need fresh blood.

I also really wanted to move into the policy arena and program management. So I was looking at other agencies from that standpoint. I thought, "Well, you know what? I’ll look at [the Health and Human Services Department]. There’s a lot of stuff happening there, or Treasury and all the financial work, etc." Then [GSA Administrator Martha Johnson] came and said she was making some moves and asked if I was interested in the OGP job. And I said, “Yes!”

I took this job, and people said to me two things. One is, “Is Martha punishing you?” I [said], “I don’t think so. No, I wanted this job.” And then, they [asked], “Why would you want this job?” And I said, “Because I think the Office of Governmentwide Policy can be a real force in the government.”

FCW: What challenges do you face as the leader of OGP?

Turco: I think our greatest challenge is how we work with [the Office of Management and Budget] and keep up with them. OMB is moving pretty quickly these days. Demands on them are enormous. How do we work there? How do we work in terms of the [Capitol] Hill, as well? Obviously, they’ve passed the legislation, so how do we influence that? How do we work with our [congressional] committees in terms of what’s making sense and [make sure] that we are not doing duplicate legislation. Do they understand the policies we have now and all that we can do?

Sometimes you do get stuff where [you think], “Well, wait a minute, we already do that.” But how do we help the staff help their members [of Congress] because they like to make a difference. We get that. So how do you do that in a collaborative way?

FCW: How are you planning to change OGP?

Turco: I have evolved that to sort of a thought leadership group, and that is: How do we advance the management of policy and work through issues that are facing the agencies? How do we work [with] the agencies to get it done? How can we learn from them? How can they learn from us?

They shouldn’t be coming to us. We need to go to them. So to that end, I said, “OK, we are going to hold a slam. We’re going to hold an OGP slam.” [Editor’s note: GSA uses slams to bring together employees throughout the agency to brainstorm and quickly solve a particular problem.]

Now imagine this: Of course, these are regulation writers, these are people whose heads are down, and they’re writing. So Martha said, “Hey, why don’t we do this with pictures?” We would get people out of their comfort zone in terms of thinking about what’s the vision for OGP. We worked in groups to actually come up the vision using magazines and clippings.

It really was very interactive, and people really got into it.

FCW: What did you want to learn from the slam?

Turco: What we would look like in terms of change and talent and our future and going green — sort of visioning for OGP.

The biggest challenge right now that OGP has is building or rebuilding…who we are and what we look like and our relationships with everybody. So that means how we work with [the Public Buildings Service], how we work with [the Federal Acquisition Service], OMB, Treasury, the Hill and the vendor community.

No. 2 is the acquisition workforce. We need to step up our work for our acquisition workforce here at GSA. That’s critical.

No. 3 is how we apply the policy work that we are doing governmentwide to GSA internally.

[No. 4] we have USAspending.gov. We need to ramp that up. We need a whole strategy with that, and we need to lay that out.

FCW: Why has OGP been overlooked in recent years?

Turco: Change is harder when you enter an organization that thinks they are just doing a great job. I think these guys were doing a good job, but there was no leadership.

I think that given the last couple of years, this office was dismissed as being of no value to the agency and to the government. And so I think that everyone is looking forward to the opportunity to excel and to be part of that change.

I really believe that we can help GSA with its mission for innovative solutions in support of our customers. The folks within OGP — myself included — need to move with some velocity here. I really think if we can move out on this sustainability piece and show how folks can do things differently through these policies, regulations, bulletins, then we can reduce that speed.

FCW: What insights do you have on managing people?

Turco: You need to be honest with people in terms of your assessment of the office. You need to not do everything yourself because that doesn’t work. You have to assess your staff, and if you have senior people who aren’t up to the challenge, you need to find other opportunities for them. A manager or a leader is supposed to focus on the strategy and the direction [of the office].

People shouldn’t be beholden to you. This isn’t serf world.

And then some people — I honestly believe this — get put in a job and…it’s just not the right job. You do need to move them along and help them.

 

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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