GSA now on the fast track, top exec says

Johnson plans to prepare agency for rapid growth

After spending her first few weeks on the job prowling the halls of the General Services Administration building and talking to staff members, the agency’s new administrator, Martha Johnson, has hit the speaker’s trail to deliver a message of change.

“I accepted President Obama’s nomination to be the General Services administrator basically to transform GSA into the big engine that will,” she said in a keynote address at industry group TechAmerica’s Transparency and Transformation Through Technology conference March 23.

Johnson will deliver a keynote speech at 1105 Media's FOSE trade show on March 25.


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“I want you to think of GSA as a change agent for government,” she said. “We will do this with information technology, with building technology and actually the human technology, in partnership with both our industry partners and our customers.”

One of those changes is how government — and GSA — regard the workplace. Out is the old industrial model with time clocks and cubicles. Government put a toe in the waters of the new view of work with telework she said.

“During the snowstorms five or six weeks ago, more than 65 percent of GSA employees were online and working from home,” she said. Johnson recalled having her own swearing-in conducted over the phone while she was snowed in.

The convergence of geographic and carbon footprints also will change the workplace. “These and other notions of change are influencing how we think at GSA about what we do,” she said.

She likened changes in store to the mid-1990s when the Clinger-Cohen legislation took away agency mandates to procure through GSA. The agency had to learn to market its offerings and compete, she said.

When Johnson left GSA in 2001, the agency was doing $35 billion in business. It’s since grown to $65 billion. “That’s a lot of growth,” she said. “Now the question becomes: Do we want to win in this market?”

What if that business were to grow to $90 billion or $200 billion, Johnson asked. “I think that kind of growth would radically change the way we do things.” GSA accounts for about 13 percent of government spending, she said. “What if we were 20 percent?”

Such scenarios and the change they would require are why she’s added a new staff member whose job will be to create such scenarios and conduct business analytics and risk management to prepare the agency for such growth.

New mandates, legislation that expands GSA's business or an acceleration of government use of health care technology could push fast growth on GSA, she said. And at least one catalyst for change is entirely in the agency's GSA’s hands: “We could win more business by performing better," she said.

The open government, transparency and change pushed by the Obama administration is giving the agency a chance to improve customer service by partnering with customers and industry, she said. “Think of GSA as a membrane between industry and government, government and solutions.”

Agencies are being urged to embrace innovation. However, Johnson said, “innovation creates risk.” Agencies should partner with GSA, she said, “because we can absorb some of their risk.”

The agency’s size, business expertise and unique position virtually “embedded” in agencies governmentwide give it a long view of trends and best practices, she said. “We have broad shoulders. We are big. Our broad shoulders should allow us to take risks in ways that other organizations just can’t.”

“We’ve incorporated green building, photovoltaics, sail-like things that go over atriums and filter light, dual-flush toilets and waterless urinals — GSA is not afraid of anything,” she said.

GSA is about to deliver to agencies a greenhouse gas tracking tool, populated with data, that will let agencies do their reporting against the executive order, she said.

As culture vice president at Computer Sciences Corp., Johnson helped build collaboration tools. Not divergent brainstorming tools such as blogs where ideas just pile up, she said, but convergent tools that lead to solutions.

Nothing short of completely “reverse engineering our processes” to serve the concept of letting customer needs pull the agency’s way of working will do, she said.

“I believe in the efficacy of work,” she said. “The work you do should be the way you change. That’s the philosophy I intend to bring to GSA.”

There’s a clincher, she said. “We have an arena like no other in which to demonstrate what we can do.

“If NASA has moon shots and DARPA has the Internet, we have sustainability and open government. We can be a proving ground for change.”

About the Author

Sami Lais is a special contributor to Washington Technology.

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