GSA nominee lays out reform plans

If confirmed, Johnson would be fifth GSA administrator in 14 months

Martha Johnson, President Barack Obama’s nominee to lead the General Services Administration, seems to be all but a shoo-in for the job.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said at Johnson’s June 3 confirmation hearing that he would work to quickly get her nomination approved by the committee and then the Senate. He also said Obama made a “very wise choice” in nominating her.

“GSA, the president and the government need you to be at your desk,” he told Johnson as he concluded the hearing, which lasted 57 minutes.

Senators who attended the hearing noted Johnson’s qualifications and experience in the nonprofit and private sectors in addition to the federal government arena, particularly as chief of staff at GSA in the 1990s when David Barram was administrator.

Johnson said she would be thrilled to go back to GSA. The agency has many challenges, from making federal buildings more environmentally efficient to giving GSA employees a morale boost.

“‘Thrilled’ is actually a code word for me and for the agency,” she said. Thrilled is how she hopes GSA’s customers feel about its services as the agency tries to reattract skeptical customers.

Johnson said her highest priorities are to:

  • Demand, model and secure an uncompromising demonstration of ethical behavior and an organizational culture of values and trust.
  • Guarantee consistent, prompt and high-value performance for GSA’s customers.
  • Attend to the demands of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.
  • Support the Obama administration’s promise of a more transparent government.
  • Build and nurture a strong leadership cadre.

Sens. Lieberman and Susan Collins (R-Maine), the committee’s ranking minority member, reiterated to Johnson that agencies have turned from GSA to do their own procurements because they’re skeptical of its services.

“Some agencies have lost confidence in the ability of GSA to provide the best products and at the best prices and have begun to negotiate their own contracts that duplicate services offered by GSA,” Lieberman said. “That defeats the purpose of GSA.”

The wave of new interagency contracts shows the market's skepticism of GSA’s performance, Johnson said. But another major underlying issue that has driven agencies to do their own procurements is simply their ability to do them, she said. Legislative changes made in the 1990s, including the Clinger-Cohen Act, lifted rules making GSA the primary mandatory source for buying certain products and services. As a result, agencies decided to take the work into their own hands. They could more tightly control and tailor their work to suit their needs, she said.

Johnson said she would bring business back to GSA through "thrilling the customer" with better performance than the agency has delivered in the past. To do that, she said, the agency will need to become more efficient, come to know its customers intimately and provide innovative solutions to their problems.

Although the competition among contracts often brings better value and lower prices, too much overlap of contracts can have the opposite effect, Johnson said. Yet she doesn’t believe in GSA being a monolithic source for purchasing.

Lieberman said he will count on her to solve the problem of the spread of too many contracts.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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