Looking at the big picture

There are times when attention to detail is all-important. But a lack of attention to fine points, the very thing that kept Marty Wagner from becoming an accomplished engineer, made him a great administrator.

An aeronautical engineer by training, Wagner soon discovered that his talents were more suited to tackling the abstract issues he confronts as associate administrator of the Office of Governmentwide Policy (OGP) at the General Services Administration. "I'm better at big pictures than getting at the details," Wagner said.

Wagner deals with just about every issue in government, from procurement and electronic commerce to transportation and international cooperation. When asked how one person can handle all of those subjects, he gives himself a backhanded compliment.

"I'm professionally shallow," Wagner said. "I know a little about everything."

Wagner may be one of the few people qualified for his job. Since graduating from Princeton University in 1969, he has moved from engineering to public policy, and it seems like he has stopped almost everywhere in between.

Wagner inherited a love of language from his father—a high school English teacher—but it was not strong enough for him to pursue the same career. But he still gets annoyed when people think "disinterested" means uninterested instead of impartial.

Instead, following a lifelong interest in science, Wagner received bachelor's and master's degrees from Princeton in aeronautical engineering. After working with NASA on the cost-benefit analysis for the space shuttle in the early 1970s, Wagner returned to Princeton for another master's degree, this time in economics, from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

He then plunged into a whirlwind of careers in government, starting at the Environmental Protection Agency and doing stints at the Office of Management and Budget and the Treasury Department before landing at GSA.

The walls of his office reflect that varied history, including a sheet of one-dollar bills signed—as Wagner explained—by former Treasurer Catalina Vasquez Villalpando "before she was a felon." (Villalpando was convicted of fraud and tax evasion in 1994.)

Wagner arrived at GSA in 1990 as deputy commissioner of the Information Resources Management Service, where he was responsible for governmentwide programs for acquisition and management of telecommunications and information technology. In 1994 and 1995, he co-chaired the federal Electronic Commerce Acquisition Team.

When GSA brought together its many policy offices into the OGP in 1996, it was natural that Wagner be chosen to head up OGP because of his experience in overseeing governmentwide programs while at GSA and Treasury.

"It probably is not a bad fit," he admitted.

Wagner often has told questioners that there was no plan behind his career, just curiosity. And that helps in his current job as well.

Because he is not directly in charge of any one area covered by OGP, his job is to know what questions to ask the people at each OGP office to get the right results, he said. "One thing I need to do at my job is know that I don't know," Wagner said.

Even though he continues to keep track of the science and engineering worlds—and his interests in the subjects are never far beneath the surface of a conversation—Wagner has no regrets for leaving engineering behind or working for the government.

"You don't get the respect from everyone that you would want, but there are things that need to be done," he said. "I feel lucky. I'm glad that I was in the right place at the right time to get to do the kinds of things that I do."

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Bookmarks

Here are Marty Wagner's favorite World Wide Web sites:

* www.economist.com* policyworks.com

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