Can Johnson right the GSA ship?

It’s no secret that the General Services Administration has fallen on hard times in recent years. Beset by changes to the laws that made its services no longer mandatory and a series of temporary leaders who were able to do little more than keep the rudder steady, the procurement agency needs a leader who can restore it to its former luster – however beige it might have been.

President Barack Obama hopes that bringing back a Clinton-era agency veteran can turn the tide. Martha Johnson, his nominee to become GSA administrator, served as chief of staff under Administrator David Barram in the 1990s.

Johnson, already approved by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and, as of presstime, awaiting full Senate confirmation, will be stepping into something of a hornet’s nest. The previous administrator, Lurita Doan, resigned at the White House’s request in 2008 after a tumultuous two years that included a very public fight with the agency’s inspector general. Three acting administrators have maintained order since then, but no reformers have stepped forward to lift the agency out of its funk.

In his day, Barram was something of a reformer, agreeing that agencies should use GSA’s services only when they could get a better deal by doing so. But he and Johnson tried to ensure that agencies would find GSA’s offerings useful more often than not.

Johnson discussed her approach in an article published in Fast Company in 1999:

"GSA's scope is extraordinary. [Johnson] describes the agency as a combination of Office Depot, Home Depot, an airline and a real-estate agency. (Before joining the government, Johnson was an internal consultant at Ben & Jerry's.) And that extraordinary scope meant that the challenges of change were extraordinary as well. But in just three years, real change has taken hold. Most of that change involves providing better customer service, fixing the agency's reputation, or improving life for employees. And nearly all of it involves leveraging technology."

But now it is 10 years later. The technology has been leveraged. Transparency is the new administration’s watchword, and social media is the technology challenge of the day. GSA officials undertook a massive reorganization a few years ago that combined the venerable Federal Technology Service and Federal Supply Service into a single organization. How will Johnson’s vision fare in the new world?

One clue comes from looking at how she has spent her time since leaving GSA in 2001. From 2002 to 2007, Johnson managed a strategic consulting group at SRA International. Since then, she’s been vice president of culture at Computer Sciences Corp. It’s a good bet that she’s kept up with the changes in the landscape.

Doan, the last GSA administrator (not counting the three acting administrators who have held the top spot since Doan’s forced departure), used to recall her fight with GSA Inspector General Brian Miller. Doan attributes her ouster to her public feud with the IG’s office, which she said terrorized employees. That statement led some to suggest that she had compared IG auditors to terrorists, a claim Doan denied.

At her nomination hearing, Johnson pledged support for the IG’s office. But in interviews about the nomination, Doan continued to portray the relationship between the IG and GSA’s contracting officials as adversarial. “The IG situation at GSA is pretty fierce," she said in an interview with Government Executive.

Newly appointed Chief of Staff Danielle Germain is another piece of the GSA puzzle falling into place. She led the White House Recovery dialogue on information technology solutions at the National Academy of Public Administration and worked on a pilot project on citizen engagement called “A National Dialogue on Health IT and Privacy.”

Germain’s colleague, Dan Munz, wrote in a blog: “If I may, a point of personal privilege: I had the great good fortune to work with Danielle here at the National Academy for nearly a year, and she is a stellar choice for this position. Aside from a host of great personal and leadership qualities, Danielle's passion for collaboration (both the Interwebs kind and otherwise) will be a key asset in making sure that GSA — which has been a real leader in government's social-networking efforts — maintains that position and continues to be a pacesetter across federal space.”

Once Johnson and Germain move in at GSA, everyone will be watching that space.

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