Robertson is Obama's inside man at GSA
Robertson sees his job as being a conduit rather than a policy wonk
Michael Robertson, the new associate administrator of governmentwide policy at the General Services Administration, is clearly the Obama administration’s new man in the GSA. The question is, can he become the GSA’s man in the White House?
By his own admission, he is not a nitty-gritty acquisition guy. Rather, Robertson sees his role as being the advocate for GSA to senior officials and policymakers in President Barack Obama’s inner circle.
He believes his mandate is to bring pioneering ideas in areas such as technology and procurement to Obama administration officials and then gather widespread support for them.
“This is more about leading an office than someone who’s working way far down in the weeds,” he told Federal Computer Week recently in his first interview as associate administrator.
Robertson should be able to do that well because he has a long and close history with Obama that goes back to Obama's 2004 race for the U.S. Senate in Illinois. Robertson later became legislative director and deputy chief counsel for Obama in Congress, and he also worked on the then-president-elect's transition team.
“To get broad innovations through instead of little nuggets here and there, you really need to have a collaborative process with folks who are going to support that kind of work,” Robertson said. “What I am going to do is to work to get that support from the White House and [Office of Management and Budget] for some of the innovative work that our GSA folks are doing.”
Robertson's job combines three important positions at GSA. Besides associate administrator for governmentwide policy, he’s also chief acquisition officer, which means he is in charge of the acquisition policy office, and White House liaison, a job he’s held since February. As associate administrator, he leads the office that works on policies for managing the government’s internal operations. As CAO, he’s responsible for developing and reviewing acquisition policies.
GSA merged its governmentwide policy office with the acquisition policy office last month in part because they share a common purpose, officials said at the time. The idea was that combining their leadership would enable the offices to better guide policy and procurement across government. The Office of Acquisition Policy was originally part of the Office of Governmentwide Policy and was renamed the Office of the Chief Acquisition Officer when they were separated in July 2004. Robertson is in charge of bringing the two offices back together.
Robertson's job has a parallel between his new position and the role of the catcher in baseball.
Robertson grew up playing catcher for various baseball teams from junior leagues to college. He considers one of his most significant baseball feats to be the time he called and caught a perfect game in high school, which means none of the other team’s players were able to reach base.
The catcher plays a key role. He communicates with the pitcher and coach in the dugout to pick the right pitches to get the batters out. The catcher can see the whole field and is in the best position to direct and lead other players. He has to know what’s happening on the field and what signals the coach is sending from the bench.
Like a catcher, in his new job, Robertson “is a translator and facilitator between organizations, like the FAR Council and the West Wing,” said Larry Allen, president of the Coalition for Government Procurement.
The Federal Acquisition Regulation Council is the primary body that guides procurement policy, and GSA’s CAO is one of four members of the panel.
But industry and government officials wonder about Robertson’s acquisition experience given his important role in that area. Does he know enough about acquisition policy to be calling the plays?
In response, Robertson said he’s not here to write policy. He's backed by a team of career officials who know acquisition issues in detail. Although he’ll be working closely with them, his job is to look more broadly at the various pieces and link similar initiatives that haven’t been brought together before.
“That’s kind of where I come from: putting teams together and building coalitions,” he said.
Bob Woods, president of Topside Consulting and former commissioner of GSA’s defunct Federal Technology Service, said Robertson seems to understand the demands and responsibilities of his position at GSA.
At least one government official was pleased with Robertson’s approach to the job. “If an agency can’t get an acquisition expert to be CAO, this is the best thing it could have had,” said the official, who requested anonymity. Robertson might "do better if he stays away from the nitty-gritty.”
Furthermore, some experts believe Robertson could have a positive impact on acquisition because of his ability to function as a proponent for GSA to senior administration officials.
Obama has shined a spotlight on procurement reform, and his administration is on course to change government contracting. “I am instructing my administration to dramatically reform the way we do business on contracts,” he said in March when he signed a memo that outlines the reforms.
Some experts caution that political appointees and lawmakers who have little, if any, procurement policy expertise can quickly bulldoze even the best system. But Allen said Robertson might be able to block policies that make political sense but would hinder the acquisition process. His job could be even more important given the fact that there is no administrator in the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. That is another position that can halt bad policy proposals.
If Robertson has GSA officials’ insight on acquisition and senior administration officials’ attention, he might be able to stop bad ideas before they get too far, Allen said. “A good catcher knows how to block the plate to prevent a run from scoring that would devastate his team,” he added.