2014 Government Eagle Award Winner

Dan Tangherlini: A force for continuous change

Dan Tangherlini

GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini (Photo by Zaid Hamid)

For a smart guy, Dan Tangherlini has made some questionable career moves.

A rising star at the Office of Management and Budget and Department of Transportation in the 1990s, he took a detour into the District of Columbia government -- working with the Metropolitan Police Department and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority before ultimately serving as city administrator under Mayer Adrian Fenty.

In 2009, Tangherlini returned to federal service by taking three jobs in one: the Department of Treasury's assistant secretary for management, chief financial officer and chief performance officer. And then in 2012, he moved to the General Services Administration as acting administrator, tasked with righting an agency that had just lost several senior executives and much of its credibility with Congress thanks to conference spending and other mismanagement.

Tangherlini likes to deflect such questions by saying it's all an attempt to get stories to match those of his brother, who is a firefighter in San Francisco. "What I'm really trying to be, is as cool as my younger brother," he quipped. "But I'm not even close."

Turning serious, however, Tangherlini said it was a "huge honor" to even be considered for such public-service challenges. "I've gone because I've been asked, he said." And maybe it's because other people weren't interested in doing it, but in every one of those opportunities what I found was smart, committed, dedicated public servants who were dying to work on something big and important and meaningful."

That answer -- with its description of the allure of making government better, and the aggressive sharing of credit with agency colleagues -- gets to the essence of the GSA administrator, and the management style that has won over many on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Not everyone is a fan of Tangherlini's tenure at GSA, of course -- perhaps unsurprisingly, given his mandate to rein in spending and reboot some of the agency's management culture. But he has undeniably put his agency on a path of constant and iterative improvement, and given GSA's IT leaders the space and permission they need to experiment.

"It's OK to risk the possibility of blowing up what works," he said, if that's what it takes to ensure that functional systems continue to improve. "If you don't make continuous improvement or investment, the risk gets big. You eventually get to the point where you have to rebuild the thing from scratch."

That doesn't mean change for change's sake, Tangherlini said, arguing that much of GSA's success comes from the "combination of people who bring experience with having tried things before, with people who are really interested in trying new stuff." The key is "valuing everyone's opinions around the table, but having a clear message that we are going to continually improve, and we are going to focus on great outcomes and results." And anyone hoping that GSA might calm down after an initial flurry of change should probably think again. From Tangherlini's perspective, things are just getting going.

Noting that he started at OMB in 1991, right after the Chief Financial Officer Act was passed, Tangerlini said, "You've got to remember, we didn’t even have audited financial statements for federal agencies. I don't think it's a stretch to say that we didn't know what agencies were spending and where their money was."

"I think it's taken every bit of those 20 years for us to actually build the effective management system," he said. "We are close to really having the ... continuous streams of meaningful, important and interesting management data that will allow managers to actually have a sense of how their agencies are performing in real time."

"That initial 20 years was hard and slow," Tangherlini said. "I think the next 20 years are going to be fast and dramatic."

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