Building consensus

Mary Mitchell, deputy associate administrator of the Office of Electronic Commerce at the General Services Administration, knows better than most people the challenges - and the significance - of consensus building.

She learned this firsthand during her 17 years at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, where she managed information technology programs and worked with industry to define promising investments in areas such as e-commerce and supply-chain integration. Mitchell also led a group that helped the development of international standards - an effort that required buy-in from many disparate groups.

Now at GSA, Mitchell's job is to support, coordinate and monitor the government's rollout of e-commerce - a task that requires consensus among a varied group of players.

Mitchell said her experience at NIST will serve her well in her new job, which she started about two months ago. "NIST is very technology- and standards-centric, so I come from an open-standards consensus-building kind of environment," Mitchell said. "My real strength is in building alliances. They were alliances with industry more than with government, but I'm hoping those skills will also be useful [at GSA]."

She added that working on e-commerce bears many similarities to her work on standards at NIST. "It's not that different from standards work in that you're trying to be the catalyst to bring [players] to the table to agree on things that are to their mutual benefit," she said. "But there are different sets of players and different drivers."

Mitchell became interested in e-commerce after working with the Automotive Industry Action Group to improve its supply-chain operations while she was at NIST. During the planning discussions, Mitchell was surprised to see the large automobile manufacturers give the first-tier suppliers equal weight in the decision-making process. The players realized that it was the organizational issues that needed the most discussion.

"That whole experience was eye-opening for me and made me think about how we need to look at how we were using technology to improve the business process and how our government projects should be focused on what goals they were achieving," she said. Mitchell realized that it was easy to get lost in the rapidly changing world of technology "without seeing what kind of impact or what kind of advantages you were really trying to achieve as the end game," she said.

Mitchell said her office focuses on electronic catalogs, smart cards, electronic grants and e-commerce security. She also will act as the co-chairwoman of the Federal Electronic Commerce Program Office with the Defense Department.

Learn From Industry

Mitchell has found that government has much to learn from industry. "I think the government does sometimes think that its requirements are unique, and in many cases they're not," Mitchell said. "We don't spend enough time looking out at what these industry groups are doing and trying to leverage benefits that are coming out of those activities."

Already there are several e-commerce initiatives in industry that should provide agencies with helpful lessons, Mitchell said. For example, the catalog interoperability pilot, led by industry group CommerceNet and involving several government agencies, will help government online catalogs to interoperate.

Still, there is much work to be done. "Today we are focusing mostly on interoperability, with huge investments in the private sector on interoperability," Mitchell said. "We're only getting to the point where we can leverage some of that for real business process improvements."

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