Flexibility is prescription for GSA

In an era in which both Congress and the executive branch hold fast to the mantra that government should act more like a business, David Barram may be just what the doctor ordered for the General Services Administration.

The ailing agency long has suffered the slings and arrows of outraged federal employees, a trend that Barram wants to put to rest. And although he has been acting administrator at GSA only since March, he already has coined the slogan that he expects all his employees to live by: "You can't beat GSA."

As chief financial officer for companies such as Apple Computer Inc. and Silicon Graphics Inc., Barram worked side-by-side with some of the heaviest hitters in the high-tech industry. Their influence on him has been undeniable, he said.

As controller of Hewlett-Packard Co.'s computer-products group in the 1970s, Barram frequently lunched with Bill Hewlett and learned management skills that he hopes will bear fruit at GSA. In particular, he remembers how Hewlett observed HP's employees - somewhat nerdy by today's standards - parading around with slide rules on their belts and pocket protectors on their shirts. "Bill Hewlett saw these slide rules, but he also saw chip technology coming," Barram said. "He said, 'Why don't we marry these and make hand-held calculators?' The rest, as they say, is history."

Barram witnessed high-tech history again at Silicon Graphics when Jim Clark strove to produce an inexpensive way to display 3-D images on a computer. "He was a great entrepreneur," Barram said. "His dream was to get that stuff cheap enough so more people could use it. He built it on a single chip called the geometry engine."

Barram said he took from these experiences a philosophy espousing a willingness to change with the times and look forward instead of reacting to the present. One way that this philosophy has taken hold at GSA has been through Barram's initiative to ensure that every GSA employee has access to the Internet. He said agencywide Internet and intranet access would "allow people to develop skills they will need to be successful in the future."

He is also a proponent of the GSA Advantage system, which allows federal employees to order products and services from the agency on-line. But instead of seeing it simply as a convenient way to order paper clips and notebooks, Barram views the technology as one that will spur even greater improvements in the future.

"I'm thinking this means [vendors] will start developing something like a Web browser to keep track of whether competitors have lowered their prices," he said. "Then they will probably find a way to change their prices automatically if their competitors do. That's what I mean by imagining what technology will allow you to do, applying it to your present situation and gaining a competitive advantage. If you want to lead and keep your organization in front, you have to develop the ability to see trends."

After assessing the situation at GSA for the past three and a half months, Barram concluded that the agency has received a bum rap and that its problems lie more in marketing than in serving its customers.

"I was a little surprised when I came here to see how good the organization was," he said. "I had heard bad things, but I found good people. My reaction was that we have really good raw material here and we should make it clear to people the good things we are doing. I am trying to help us internally be obsessive about good output and skilled at describing to the world what we do well."

Barram added that he remains open to some proposed changes, including a proposal from the agency's Federal Supply Service to remove itself from GSA to become a quasi-governmental performance-based organization.

And although he said he supports the current strategy for buying telecommunications services after the FTS 2000 contract expires, he said he expects that the government will have to change the way it buys those services as technology changes.

"I'm open to anything," he said. "My job here is not to perpetuate anything. My job is to be the best steward of government resources I can possibly be. I want to make sure that I am looking out a little bit ahead and pushing and pulling a little bit so we are absolutely the organ-ization that agencies select.

"I'm even going to try to find a way to have our policy shop thrill our customers," Barram said.

He paused. "I just don't know how yet," he said, smiling.

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