5 tips for GSA to survive its reorganization

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Reorganizing any large organization is a challenge. It can become monumentally difficult for a federal agency that has two large constituencies pulling in different directions, several major projects in development and retiring agency veterans.

The General Services Administration faces that quagmire, partly of its own volition and partly under congressional mandate. The agency released its final reorganization plan in August. Although it does not have a timeline for completion, work is well under way on turning the plan into a reality.

The reorganization will abolish the Federal Technology Service and the Federal Supply Service and resurrect their functions under one entity — the Federal Acquisition Service. The plan calls for merging the Information Technology Fund and General Supply Fund, which will relieve GSA field employees from making the sometimes fuzzy judgment call of whether a given procurement is IT or not.

As GSA moves forward with the reorganization, the agency has no shortage of constituents, fans, critics and observers offering advice. Although GSA officials cannot listen to everyone, some important advice comes from old hands.

Bob Woods, former commissioner of FTS and now president of Topside Consulting, suggested four things that GSA must do to turn the planned reorganization into a revolutionary restructuring. Alan Balutis, president and chief executive officer of Input's Government Strategies unit, offers a fifth suggestion.

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Bring employees to the table

GSA has not managed the planning phase well, Woods said. Many GSA employees involved in making the transition have not been adequately informed about what to expect.

"When you're taking an organization from one state to another, the things you do in transition matter," he said. "It's not just having a good communications plan or that sort of thing. It has to do with the signals you send, the actions you take, the way you treat people. The world is watching."

Phil Kiviat, a consultant at Guerra, Kiviat, Flyzik and Associates, said he has heard rumblings that many employees are unsure of their roles within the new organization and that morale is flagging in some quarters.

"The best advice is to do what hasn't been done: Talk frankly and openly with the employees and keep everyone informed as to where things are and where they are going," he said. "Ask for feedback and mean it — simple elements of good employee communications."

GSA Administrator Stephen Perry said the agency has been doing a better job of communicating than Woods or Kiviat suggest.

"Through this initiative, from the very beginning, we've been working to get input from GSA associates, from customer agencies, from industry, from Congress" and from the Office of Management and Budget, Perry said following the final plan's release. "I think we've done a good job of having this be a comprehensive process."

Perry added that agency leaders are sensitive to employees' concerns.

"Does this [change] have an impact on people?" he asked while speaking to an audience at GSA's Network Services conference in Chicago in August. "Of course it does. People will be doing things in different ways. People will be reporting through a different chain."

The planned reorganization has been complicated by a recent loss of talented leaders. The former FSS and FTS commissioners — Donna Bennett and Sandra Bates, respectively — retired earlier this year. Neal Fox, former assistant commissioner of commercial acquisition, departed shortly after.

But those high-level retirements aren't the end of the story, Woods said.

"You've got people down in the ranks who want to get the hell out who are 50 years old or less," he said. "That's a very bad sign, because that's your future."

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Bring outsiders to the table

GSA has aggressively tried to involve industry in the planning process, the agency's top officials said. GSA has listened to industry's concerns and incorporated many suggestions into the final plan.

But some industry leaders don't think GSA took their input seriously enough. And Woods said he agrees. Although GSA has been informing the private sector of its plans, perhaps even asking for feedback, it has not brought industry or customer agencies into the process on an ongoing basis, he said.

"Industry has no workgroup involved in this, and they're a big stakeholder," he said. "I don't see the customer [agencies] involved. Supposedly, they've gone out and asked the customers certain things, but for something this important, you don't just ask them things. You put them on the team. It's not something you want to do with a phone call or a survey."

Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement, said there have been discussions between companies and GSA, but the decision-making has been in the hands of a relatively small number of people. However, Allen said some measures that his organization pushed for were incorporated into the final plan.

It's not too late to solve this problem, Woods said. The plan is still open-ended so stakeholders could influence the final shape of GSA even at this stage.

GSA, however, "has got to be prepared to hear some things [it] may not want to hear," he said.

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Measure twice, — then measure again

GSA's reorganization will succeed only if the agency develops adequate metrics to measure progress, Woods said. Employee and customer satisfaction are two good measures, he added.

He said GSA officials should be asking, " 'What kind of ratings are we getting? What do customers think of us? Are they up or down in their view of us?' These things matter in the private world, and I think we can't just ignore them."

Perry addressed the issue of performance measurement during a speech at the August conference. He assured listeners that the agency will be measuring progress.

That's important, Perry said, not just for short-term assurance but to ensure that the changes will have a long-term impact.

"To make the changes relatively permanent, to endure, it has to be done in a comprehensive way," he said. "We have to make sure that our successors have a firm foundation to build on."

But it is uncertain what measurements GSA will use, said John Johnson, FTS' assistant commissioner of service development and delivery. The agency will determine them as work continues and the most logical metrics become more clear.

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Rethink the zones

One key component of the GSA reorganization plan is the creation of six zones for overseeing regional operations. GSA has had 11 regions for a while, but the new zones will cover larger areas. Five of them will be created by combining two regions into one zone, while the zone that covers Texas and the central southwest will keep the borders of Region 7.

The purpose of consolidating regions is to provide greater oversight of field operations. GSA officials discovered that employees working in FTS Client Support Centers were often skirting contracting rules, using the IT fund to purchase non-IT goods and services, misusing sole-source contracting authority and committing other infractions. Six zones will reduce the number of near-autonomous units while still allowing for local flexibility.

But Woods said he is skeptical that creating the zones will solve such problems or significantly improve GSA's efficiency. Because the new zones are geographically larger than the regions, they will be harder to manage from the central zone office, he said.

Another concern is that the new structure seems to make GSA's headquarters a policy-generating machine while the delivery of services comes from the zones.

"So you'll separate the guys back here who talk about doing things, and the ones who actually do it will be in a separate chain of command," he said. "The agency will continue to be yanked around by the political process, which was GSA's history for several decades."

Denny Groh, vice president of government acquisition contracts at STG and formerly GSA's assistant commissioner of service delivery, said the value of the revisions may not be apparent at first.

"We're talking somewhere between six to nine months just to get people to understand the cultural and organizational changes," he said. "Although these sound like enormous changes, really, they're homing in and cutting out speculations of conflict between the regional offices and headquarters. It's a clearer message to the field."

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Stay focused until the end

GSA has expended a lot of energy developing the plan, Balutis said. The temptation to rest is great whenever such a milestone passes, but now is not the time for that, he said.

"It's always a challenge to get the dirty work of implementation done," he said. "You put together these high-powered teams, and you've got senior people involved. The deliverable happens, you've got the report, and everybody kind of goes away and says, 'We got it done.' But there's lots and lots of work that needs to happen."

Balutis was quick to note that GSA hasn't walked away from the implementation.

"I'm just saying it's a common tendency in government to fall down in the implementation phase because the key offices that have been involved don't continue the level of involvement," he said.

GSA's critics must recognize that the agency has to stay focused on the final goal, said David Nadler, a partner at Dickstein Shapiro Morin and Oshinsky.

"GSA has to weigh being proactive and receptive to its constituents," he said. "But by the same token, you don't want to suffer paralysis by analysis. At some point, you have to move ahead."

Balutis said GSA's task is momentous.

"Reorganizations like this are always difficult," he said. "It's like surgery. You only do it when it's called for, and the quicker you can deal with the healing process — and the less you go in and fiddle with it again — the better off you'll be."

NEXT STORY: SRA promotes nine

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