A Self-made businessman
- By Diane Frank
- Aug 30, 1998
Reinventing government to operate more like the private sector may go down in history as the Clinton administration's idea, but Charles Self has been at it for almost 30 years. As far as he is concerned, there is no reason why the government should not function like a business.
"I guess my moniker would be more that of a government businessman," Self said with a laugh. "People have joked that 'Charlie's the only person in the government who works on commission.' "
Self, assistant commissioner of the Office of Information Technology Integration (ITI) at the General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service (FTS), has been part of this government business almost from the start. Now he has the corner office— a long way from south shore of Long Island, where he grew up.
Starting off as a self-described "math geek," he put himself through the University of Pittsburgh on an Air Force ROTC scholarship and followed his father into the service. Because he had learned some Fortran in school, he was immediately classified by the Air Force as a "computer guy" and was assigned to the service's new Federal Simulation Center (Fedsim). In the late 1960s, Fedsim used mainframes to model and optimize the performance of other mainframes. The center was later moved to GSA and renamed the Federal Systems Integration and Management Center.
"The idea [behind Fedsim] was to develop computer expertise and then sell it to the government," which is exactly what ITI does now, Self said. "So I've always been involved in running government businesses."
After leaving the Air Force in 1972 as a captain, he stayed in "geek" mode for a while, going back to school for a master's degree in mathematics from St. Mary's University. He later spent one year at Ohio State University pursuing a doctorate in math before he was lured back to the government.
A stint in the early 1980s at the Veterans Administration convinced him that he did not want to work within agencies that operated on appropriated funding. "I tried that for three years and decided that's not how government should be operated," he said. "The government ought to do government things in a private-sector way."
So returning to the FTS, Self rejoined the revamped Fedsim as director and brought the program's sales from $5 million to more than $60 million a year. He has since moved through the organization from director of Fedsim in 1986 to deputy assistant commissioner of ITI in 1990 and then to assistant commissioner in 1997. In his time at the top of ITI, the office has jumped from less than $500 million in sales to more than $2 billion.
"My programs receive no appropriated funds," Self said. The programs draw their money from services sold to federal clients. "It makes the people here keep on their toes," he said.
Prominently hung on his office wall is a plaque adorned with a bright red pair of boxing gloves from the "Battle of the Contract Vehicles," set up last year by the Industry Advisory Council between Self and his counterpart at the Federal Supply Service, William Gormley. Self noted that much has been made in the government and the press of the differences between the procurement vehicles available through GSA's two IT contracting organizations. But he said he and Gormley refrained from using the gloves under orders "from a higher source."
Plenty of work-related items also decorate his office, and many of them are ads for ITI programs, such as logo-bearing hats, bags and a Seat Management seat cushion. "You can see from the advertising that we're trying to keep a business going," he said.
There are times when he thinks about the changes in his life that came as the result of moving from programmer to administrator. "Part of me says, 'Wait a minute! Wouldn't it be nice to put your geek hat back on?' " he said. "In many ways, this job is great and challenging, and I can make a bigger impact. But it's not the nitty-gritty, where the rubber hits the road anymore.
"But, nonetheless, I'm having a good time," he said.