Is Tangherlini getting traction or spinning his wheels?

Dan Tangherlini has drawn praise from some quarters for his reform efforts at the General Services Administration, but the acting administrator faces an uphill battle.

Tangherlini came to GSA from the Treasury Department in April, as GSA was embroiled in a scandal that took down its well-respected administrator, Martha Johnson, and several senior officials in the headquarters and regional offices of GSA's Public Buildings Service. The fiasco centered on a grandiose $822,000 conference for roughly 300 GSA employees held in Las Vegas in 2010.

Tangherlini has moved quickly to get GSA's spending habits under control. He suspended 85 percent of senior executive bonuses through fiscal 2013 and froze hiring at GSA. He's even reviewing the agency's performance awards system and asking whether the bar is set too low for assessing superior employee efforts.

He has also cancelled conferences when they don't meet his strict standard for usefulness and benefit to the agency. He has even brought questionable spending to the attention of the agency's inspector general. A $268,732 awards ceremony in 2010 cost too much, in Tangherlini's opinion. He told the IG to investigate the event, one in a series that has been going on since 2002.

"These events indicate an already recognized pattern of misjudgment, which spans several years and administrations," said Betsaida Alcantara, GSA's communications director. "It must stop, and [that's] why Acting Administrator Tangherlini has instituted several stringent new policies on spending to put an end to this misuse of taxpayer dollars."

Yet it's exactly that perceived pattern that makes Tangherlini's challenge so difficult. Although he deserves credit for disclosing the awards ceremony, that news overshadowed the housecleaning efforts announced just days earlier. Federal Acquisition Service Commissioner Steve Kempf's medical leave, related or not, only added to the sense of turmoil. And the turnover that accompanies the end of any presidential term is still to come.

Pair all that with Tangherlini's acting status — GSA has had a confirmed administrator for just four of the past eight years — and skeptics can be forgiven for wondering whether his changes will have a lasting effect.

Decisions to rein in spending could have an impact, but other efforts to make positive changes and implement new initiatives are less likely to endure, said Bob Woods, who served as commissioner of GSA's Federal Technology Service from 1994 to 1997 and is now president of Topside Consulting Group.

"I don't think you will find many statues in town with the words, 'In honor of Sally or Sal, who stopped executive bonuses at GSA,'" Woods said. "Then again, you don't find many brass plaques for those who served less than a year in the job."

Others are more optimistic. "Tangherlini has considerable support in the administration and on the Hill to make bold moves at GSA," said Larry Allen, president and founder of Allen Federal Business Partners. Dennis Fischer, who was acting GSA administrator for four months at the start of the Clinton administration, also applauded Tangherlini's initiatives and said the acting administrator is not merely an agency caretaker.

And Tangherlini does have a record of bringing order to government operations seen as lacking it, often while operating in a temporary capacity. Before returning to the federal government in 2009, he served as interim general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and in the District of Columbia's Police Department, Transportation Department and Office of the City Administrator.

For congressional overseers and GSA rank-and-file, however, the question remains: Will that support and experience be enough?

About the Author

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

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