GSAs proposed merger of policy shops may create political tensions

Some say offices have different missions and goals

The General Services Administration is quick to say the proposed merger of its Governmentwide Policy and Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs offices is designed to serve their customers—agencies, Congress and taxpayers—better.

And while officials emphasized that the decision to combine the offices is far from guaranteed, they seem to believe the choice to mix the offices will be an easy one.

“The consolidation of the two offices would make them more effective and efficient,” said Claire Dorrell, GSA’s deputy associate administrator for communications. “Both handle governmentwide responsibilities, and the Office of Governmentwide Policy will remain a core priority within GSA.”

But what GSA officials could be overlooking is the politics of the decision, according to at least one former Office of Management and Budget official.

The former official, who requested anonymity, said merging these offices would “gum up processes” because it would bring politics into administrative, operational and fiscal decisions traditionally made by career employees.

“Putting administrative policy under the leadership of congressional relations policy is absolutely a non-fit,” the former official said. “This is bringing in a set of political interests that are otherwise irrelevant to the interests of the structure, which is meant to balance the fiscal and operational interests of the government.”

The former official said smarter heads will prevail because “you don’t want legislative affairs making policy decisions.”

The Governmentwide Policy Office, which GSA created in 1996, always has played a behind-the-scenes role in a number of areas, including, most prominently, e-government. OGP long has been the operational arm of OMB’s Office of E-Government and IT.

The office also handles policymaking in the areas of personal and real property, travel and transportation, and regulatory information, and provides support to the federal advisory committees, such as the CIO Council.

Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs prepares and coordinates GSA’s annual legislative program; communicates GSA’s legislative program to OMB and Congress; works closely with OMB in the coordination and clearance of all proposed legislation impacting GSA and its programs; prepares comments and makes recommendations on all bills submitted by GSA to the president for final action; and initiates, coordinates and presents briefings to members of Congress and their staff on GSA programs and initiatives.

The new organization’s name would be the Office of Congressional and Governmental Affairs. OGP would remain pretty much intact, but would report up through the new office, sources who have seen the proposal said.

GSA administrator Lurita Doan and the head of the Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs office, Kevin Messner, whom Doan also recently named the acting associate administrator of OGP, sent the proposal to senior GSA managers, regional administrators and anyone who would be affected by the merger, Dorrell said.

“This should not be looked at as [if] something is wrong,” Dorrell said.
“Administrator Doan is looking for ways to make things better. We feel this would strengthen communication within GSA and provide better services all over the country.”

Messner would remain head of the congressional office, and Doan would name a new head of OGP, who would report to Messner, sources said.

Dorrell added there is no time frame for when comments on the proposal are due, and the GSA administrator will make the final decision. OMB and the Hill also are being kept in the loop, she said.

Emory Miller, a senior vice president for government affairs at Robbins-Gioia LLC of Alexandria, Va., worked at OGP for about seven years and believes the merger would have positives and negatives.

He said it would move OGP down a notch in the organization, but it would open the channel for communication about cross-agency initiatives.

“When it was first mentioned, I was stunned,” he said. “But there is merit to the merger. The new office has to have the right leadership in place, and I think Lurita thinks she has someone who has the skills and relationships to make it work.”

As for the possible political issues that the merger could raise, Miller said that, while it could create some tension between the legislative and executive branches, it is a matter of managing the relationship and having an open dialogue.

There seems to be support among GSA’s staff. One employee, who requested anonymity, said there could be benefits for both organizations. “It is not horrible and could be a lot worse,” the employee said.

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