A death of a genuine public servant

Ida Ustad, the General Service Administration's senior procurement executive, died recently, after a long battle with cancer. She was only 50 years old.

Her name probably doesn't mean too much to information technology professionals outside GSA, but she was well-known in the federal procurement community throughout government. And, of course, nobody outside the Beltway ever heard of Ida—except her three siblings, relatives and friends back in rural South Dakota, where Ida grew up.

Because the public does not know career federal workers such as Ida, they generally have a dim view of federal employees' achievements.

I first met Ida shortly after coming to Washington, D.C., in 1993, when I became involved, quite late in the game, in the first reinventing government report issued in early September of that year. With Jim Williams, a senior career procurement official at the Internal Revenue Service; Wayne Wittig of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy; and John Scully, a NASA program manager and vocal critic of procurement folks, they constituted the National Performance Review (NPR) procurement team.

The group was noteworthy because it came up with many of the recommendations that marked the early agenda of procurement reform, including expanded use of credit cards, streamlining and increased use of best value. Those ideas didn't come from the outside—they grew up from within the procurement community itself.

There was a faction within the NPR that, frustrated with the operation of the procurement system, regarded procurement people as the enemy, an army of micromanagers and bureaucrats with little orientation toward achieving program results. They saw radical downsizing of the procurement work force as the best thing that could happen to the system.

Having interviewed procurement people several years earlier for my academic research on IT procurement, I was inclined to be of the same mind. But Ida and her teammates proved that stereotype was wrong. Here they were, very much from inside the system, proposing all sorts of ideas for improving the system. After Ida was promoted to her last job as GSA's senior procurement official, she continued down the same path of change and reinvention by shepherding the massive regulatory changes involving the GSA schedules through the system.

Three words come to mind when I think of Ida: plain-spoken, spunky and resilient. Ida was paralyzed as a result of having been in a car accident at age 16, and she used a wheelchair to get around. Williams tells a story of when he was rolling Ida's wheel-chair to a briefing on the NPR procurement recommendations and the wheelchair tipped over, depositing Ida on the street. Later, he called to ask her how she was.

When Ida laconically informed Jim she had broken her leg, Williams was devastated. "Oh, don't worry about it," Ida responded jauntily. "It happens all the time."

I remember the late-night meetings during the government shutdown in 1995, when a few senior officials, including Ida, were negotiating the final details of the Clinger-Cohen Act with Hill staff while the rest of the government was on furlough. Ida had been ill for some time. Until her condition significantly worsened earlier this year, Ida continued to work.

At the Industry Advisory Council meeting in Richmond, Va., in October, Marty Wagner told me that Ida's condition was very bad, and he gave me her phone number at the hospital.

I reached her just before she was going into surgery again, and I was crestfallen to hear from her voice over the phone how the spunk had drained out of her. The cancer was too powerful even for someone as strong as Ida.

Above all, Ida represents to me the constituency for change and improvement within the career federal work force, the folks within government who knew all along that the government should, and must, be managed better, the folks committed to the public good - and who were waiting for the signal to allow them to get that effort under way.

Procurement reform would never have been possible if there had been only a few of us politicals at the top of the system trying to make it happen. Trying to bring about change alone from the top is like trying to push on a string. Change can be successful only through an alliance between people on the top pushing for it and people who've been waiting for a signal authorizing them to get moving.

Once change in the procurement system got started, the Ida Ustads of the world made it happen. Ida helped teach me that there was a constituency for change within the career federal work force.

We have lost a wonderful public servant. I will miss her.

Ida began to work for GSA as a summer intern in 1971, at the end of the idealistic 1960s.

I often ask myself from where, given the growing salary gaps and media bashing of government, the next generation of Ida Ustads will come. I can only hope that, as we lose public servants like Ida, we are not losing the vision of public service.

--Kelman was the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997. He is now Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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