GSA Blues: Nowhere to go but up

One year into his term, President Barack Obama has any number of ways to measure his track record, both positive and negative. But for the General Services Administration, the government’s premier procurement agency, it was another year of wandering in the desert — with no promised land in sight.

Martha Johnson, the president’s pick to head GSA, has yet to get a vote from the Senate nearly 10 months after she was nominated for the administrator post. She’s stuck in Senate purgatory, a roadside casualty of some gamesmanship over a Missouri Post Office Building.

The acting administrator, career man Paul Prouty, got tired of the commute from Denver and turned in his keys to the corner office in December. Last month brought two more major departures from the executive suite — deputy administrator Barney Brasseux retired, and Danielle Germain, GSA’s chief of staff for seven months, announced she was leaving out of frustration over Johnson’s stalled nomination.

Despite the turmoil at the top, work continues unabated at the agency, according to insiders and outside observers. GSA has the business processes in place and employees who know the well-worn routine. “And they’re going to come to work every day,” said Bill Gormley, former assistant GSA commissioner and now head of the Washington Management Group.

But the long-term implications can have severe consequences, many of which might not be recognized for years. For instance, the lack of a permanent administrator, which extends well back into the Bush administration, tends to stymie long-term strategic planning. While other agencies feed on the energy and fresh mandates from a new administration, GSA officials lose the opportunity to be more forward-looking about the next wave of programs or contracts.

“Each administration has a four-year time horizon,” said John Okay, former deputy commissioner of GSA’s Federal Technology Service and now partner at Topside Consulting Group. “Now, GSA has three years.”

Since 2008, GSA has been living on acting administrators. Stephen Leeds has taken over from Prouty, who succeeded Jim Williams, the current Federal Acquisition Service commissioner — the Bush administration had nominated Williams to be administrator, but he, too, was blocked in the Senate. Before Williams was David Bibb, another career employee.

So Leeds, the newest in this string of solid but lusterless pearls, will lead the process of building the agency’s strategic plans. Everyone expects he will do an earnest job of it, but the plans likely won’t have the same oomph as when an administration official maps out the strategy. “It’s different,” Gormley said. “He’s not the administrator.”

Officials with “acting” in their titles have different priorities and often they are chosen for a specific reason. Prouty openly said he knew little about the acquisition side of GSA. His career was in the agency’s Public Building Service, and he arrived at GSA’s Washington headquarters when billions in economic stimulus dollars were heading GSA’s way for building improvements and construction.

But all organizations need continual reinvestment, and GSA is no exception, said Hope Lane, officer of government contracts consulting at Aronson and Co. The agency must be replenished with new ideas and initiatives so it can adjust to the changes in the environment. In this current state, GSA is treading water.

Collectively, there’s been new investment as major contracts were awarded and other initiatives have begun, Lane said. “Comprehensively, there’s been no investment.”

What’s more, GSA is in a highly competitive contracting market. It’s up against other governmentwide information technology contracts at NASA and the National Institutes of Health. Agencies have different places that offer assisted acquisition services, including the Interior Department’s Acquisition Services Directorate, formerly GovWorks. Some agencies now also do it themselves, setting up multiple-award contracts or even their own enterprisewide contracts, such as the Homeland Security Department’s Enterprise Acquisition Gateway for Leading Edge Solutions contract.

People are still hoping for Johnson’s confirmation. Her nomination generated a lot of electricity in GSA's circles last spring. Now that enthusiasm might be waning.

“Has the delay pulled GSA into a deeper depression?” asked Robert Guerra, a consultant at Guerra Kiviat. “No, it couldn’t get much worse than it was after the last eight years of no leadership or motivation.”

GSA administrators since 2001 (*-Acting)
Paul Prouty* Jan. 21, 2009-Dec. 21, 2009
James Williams* Aug. 30, 2008-Jan. 20 2009
David Bibb* May 1, 2008-Aug. 29, 2008
Lurita Doan May 31, 2006-Apriil 30, 2008
David Bibb* Nov. 1, 2005-May 30, 2006
Stephen Perry May 31, 2001-Oct. 31, 2005

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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Reader comments

Wed, Feb 3, 2010 John C. Johnson, GSA Assistant Commissioner (Retired) Virginia

Upon reading “GSA Blues: Nowhere to go but up,” I can say without reservation that GSA would benefit significantly if it had a strong and capable leader at the helm but, despite the absence of such a leader, GSA is a strong organization with an extremely talented and capable Senior Executive and General Schedule employee staff. One could argue that despite controversy at the most senior levels of GSA in previous years, this same group of gifted and talented employees helped to keep the ship afloat and on a relatively straight course while it faced a myriad of daunting challenges. I don’t want to downplay the significance of solid political leadership at the top – it is important but, the catalyst to GSA’s success are the men and women who work tirelessly each and every day to accomplish real and meaningful stuff. They could do even better, however, if they had a permanent, solid leader at the top whose principle focus would be to help garner the support of other elements of government in execution of the organization’s important mission.

Sat, Jan 23, 2010 James Axtell Chicago, IL

First, GSA is the "premier procurement agency...wandering in the desert," and now it's suffering in depression because it doesn't have a Senate-confirmed Administrator. What a laugh. That's not real life in the bureaucracy -- it's a soap opera. Actually GSA is doing quite well, meeting its expenditure expectations under ARRA. That doesn't get much reader interest on FCW, of course.

Fri, Jan 22, 2010

I can tell you that not all government agency employees view the constant reverse-rudder redirection of priorities with each new political appointee as an invigorating or refreshing thing. It's more often the SES ranks that provide stability and vision.

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