Doan: Restoring customer confidence is job one

The new administrator wants GSA to be the government’s premier procurement agency

Twelve hours after her swearing-in as the new administrator of the General Services Administration, Lurita Doan froze all travel for agency employees, allowing exceptions only with direct approval from her office.

It was among the first bold strokes she made in her effort to rescue the foundering agency. In discussing the decision later, she said she is intent on restoring GSA as the government’s premier procurement agency.

“In a business, you would never dream of taking a trip somewhere without understanding what the end result of that trip is,” Doan said in an interview with Federal Computer Week, her first since taking the post. “You’re going there for a purpose.”

That purpose, she said, should be to mend relationships with customers and employees.

‘The customer is king’
One of Doan’s four main objectives as GSA’s leader is returning the spirit of customer service to the agency.

“The customer is king,” Doan said, “and if you are not providing that service, you don’t have that repeat business that gives you sustainability.”

Revenue comes most dependably from repeat customers, she said. However, the agency’s business relationships have faltered in recent years, leaving GSA with revenue shortfalls.

“Relationships have a lot to do with who you buy from,” said Bob Woods, a former commissioner of GSA’s Federal Technology Service and now president of Topside Consulting Group.

On May 22, Doan told a Senate committee that she will improve face-to-face communication with customers and establish quantifiable ways to measure the agency’s progress in overcoming its deficiencies. Those metrics would prove to customers how well GSA’s services stack up against the competition.

To Woods, that sounds like the right approach. Agency employees need to shut down their computers, turn off their handheld messaging devices and go talk to customers in person, he said.

Doan is pushing GSA employees to pay more attention to their customers’ needs. Getting customers what they want quickly and keeping their best interests in mind will create revenue.

Fence-mending is required
In June, Doan traveled to Las Vegas to speak at a conference for service-disabled veterans, where she had to break the news that GSA would not award the Veterans Technology Services governmentwide acquisition contract in June as the agency had promised.

“I know they were anxious and waiting for that, because that is money in their pockets,” Doan said of the contract. She told the business owners that the contract would be awarded in October and promised to remove any barriers to its release.

The more than 1,000 company officials gasped after hearing Doan’s news, said John Moliere, a veteran and small-business owner who attended the conference. The delay will cause those veteran-owned businesses to miss agencies’ annual end-of-year spending sprees, he said.

Customer confidence in GSA has fallen, and agencies are going elsewhere to meet their needs. In her confirmation hearing, Doan said GSA has fence-mending to do with some of its biggest and most important clients.

“I have seen that GSA often spends less and less time directly with its government customers,” she told the Senate committee. She added that private businesses and vendors were not getting GSA’s attention either.

Moliere described Doan as forthright and honest. Veterans who own small businesses consider her trustworthy, he said. “She’s one of us,” he said of Doan, who is a former small-business owner. Doan told FCW that fixing broken relationships requires groveling, something she’s willing to do.

“The thing about groveling is that it has to be targeted,” she said. Generic groveling does no good.

Doan plans to meet with the Defense Department — GSA’s biggest customer — this month. The relationship between the agencies has been strained in recent years. To understand the sources of conflict better, officials from GSA and DOD have gathered their facts about the issues surrounding business problems between the two agencies. They will discuss the problems face to face.

DOD should stop building acquisition systems that duplicate services already available through GSA, Doan said. Instead, DOD needs to save taxpayers’ money and focus on its primary mission. Contracting for commodities and simplified acquisitions — especially technology procurements — should be left to GSA, Doan said.

“And we have to make it possible for them to do that,” she added.

Employees are essential
Doan said she would defer decisions about employee early-outs and buyouts to Jim Williams, head of the Federal Acquisition Service. Earlier this year, the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget authorized GSA to offer early-out and buyout packages to 395 employees. In June, GSA officials said 150 employees had accepted the offer — fewer than some officials had expected.

Getting rid of employees is not the first option for generating agency revenue, she said. GSA is taking on new duties through the lines of business initiatives so it might be wiser to reassign employees rather than finding ways to ease them out of the agency. “I believe, especially when you are in the service industry, people are your greatest resource,” Doan said.

She has made employee morale one of her top priorities as administrator. She said high morale has a one-to-one relationship with productivity. When employees feel good about their jobs and their agency, they will put forth more effort.

“This is one of the most committed workforces you have ever seen in your life,” Doan said of GSA’s career employees. But without a permanent administrator since her predecessor, Stephen Perry, left in October 2005, rank-and-file employees became unsure of their direction, she said.

“Having someone in charge who says, ‘Yes, we’re going to do this, we’re moving in this direction, these are our agenda items, this is what we’re going to do,’ goes a long way to solving those problems,” Doan said.

She has shown she is willing to travel long distances for customers and employees by crisscrossing the country in a week: From Nevada she went to Los Angeles to give an agency an e-travel award and meet with employees, and then she traveled to Memphis, Tenn., for a conference for women in business.

Doan “has undeniably lifted the morale at GSA, an agency that badly needed its morale lifted,” said Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement. “Her spirit and energy have really begun to catch on inside the agency.”

At her first outside address at a coalition event last month, Doan’s words and style re-energized the GSA people in the audience, Allen said.

“While she is surely challenging her people, I feel that most of them feel like this is positive pressure,” he added.

The notebook

Lurita Doan is a driven woman, and she stays focused with her “playbook,” a notebook in which she organizes information on the issues that face her as the new administrator of the General Services Administration.

Doan also likes lists. In her playbook, she has 60-, 90- and 120-day to-do lists. She reviews those lists each morning. At the end of the week, she goes through them again to track her progress. She previously had a 30-day list and, in her first four days on the job, a 96-hour task list to guide her moment to moment.

Her playbook has several sections in which she enters her lists and other information. For example, Doan has a section tabbed for the Defense Department. Those tabs help her push forward.

“People are stymied or they are frozen in inaction because they look at the big picture at once and think they have to address everything,” she said. In her playbook, she makes her plans for scaling mountains in small, steady steps.

As Doan accomplishes tasks, she checks them off and moves down the list. On the back of the pages, she jots comments about the jobs she has done and notes other tasks she may have left off her lists. Afterward, she asks herself how she thinks she did and what she could have done better.

“This is how I judge myself,” she said. She compares her accomplishments with her preliminary estimates to determine how well she is doing.

Doan said she often misses the mark. However, the discipline of the notebook allows her to find the best recovery strategy.

“Sometimes I am my harshest critic,” Doan said. Each year she vows to be kinder to herself when she makes mistakes.

As for her first 30 days as administrator, she said her performance grade ranged between an A-minus to a B-plus.

“There’s always room for improvement,” she said.

— Matthew Weigelt

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