Reporter's notebook from FOSE: Q&A with GSA's administrator

Martha Johnson shares her thoughts on green IT, tapping the collective intelligence, collaboration among agencies and industry, and the state of telework

After her keynote address at the FOSE 2010, Martha Johnson, administrator of the General Services Administration, sat down with reporters. She took questions for 20 minutes. This is a transcript of what she said about green IT, tapping the collective intelligence, collaboration and the state of telework.

Moderator: Do we have any questions?

Q: I guess my first question to start off is, what is GSA’s goal in terms of bringing in more business? You talked a little bit about bringing in more business, GSA is sort of the focus of agencies for buying in, so what is the long-term plan to make that happen, sort of a five-, 10-, 15-year goal?

Martha Johnson: Seven, seven years. I do think that GSA is at a crossroads where it could chose to grow, and the assessment of that is partially out of our hands. A mandate change is not something that we could create if we were to be offered the opportunity to service state and local [governments] we could be faced with quite of bit of growth promptly.

What is in our hands and what I have a real sense of is the whole notion of upping our performance. Simply cleaning up and performing better for our clients, being more responsive, helping people find what they need more quickly, and understanding where they can get the best value for the right price. So that’s where I’ll be spending my time, and I think that’s really a lot about internal processes and reverse engineering and transformation work. So I will be spending a lot of time on that.


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Q: Can you get any more down into the details of how you plan on doing that? What kind of changes can we expect to see? You can talk about a way up here what are some of the more details down here?

Martha Johnson: Well, the way you get into it is like orchestrating, the portfolio process, you need to involve people first of all. So, you need to get them clear about where you are going. So, all of that discussion has to go on. Then there is real business process for engineering, which is a very basic piece of work. You got put up your workflows, see where the redundancies are, find out what you are trying to get out of it, have war rooms where you are putting that kind of flow up on the wall and saying this is cross-hatching here and doubling back there. And, that’s very basic hard work where the workers have to get together and do that as teams.

Q: Are you going to be in those meetings and discussing that kind of stuff? Or are you going leaving that to your staff?

Martha Johnson: I would love to be able, of course. I’ll probably do that sort of thing enough so that people understand what I am after. I have gone through this before. There are many people who have done it. There are versions of it. People call it Six Sigma. Some people call it Total Quality and all sorts of things. But it is very basic business process re-engineering. And, the challenge at GSA is so interesting because we do everything. We serve every client, you name them: executive, legislative, judiciary, former presidents, state and local, international. We’ve got the whole gamut. And, we also do everything for them. We do buildings, airplane tickets, credit cards, furniture, office supplies. So we will have to be strategic in choosing the ones that we think will yield the most. So it’s going to be triage kinds of analysis at the beginning.

Q: Any ideas of which ones you see as needing the most?

Martha Johnson: No, I’m still learning where the light switches are.

Q: You talked a lot about the "greening" of the government. I was curious what kind of internal programs or structures you have to make sure that GSA buys green.

Martha Johnson: Back in the ‘90s we had something called “Planet GSA.” Where we were talking about that in the regions, and I see messages of that still there. So, there is a fair amount of commitment to just basically recycling and so on. There is no way we can “green” the supply chain if people aren’t in a daily way practicing “green.” So, I believe very much that the workplace itself, our workplace, is something that we need to work on as employees, both for our own sort of daily practicing but as the model. It’s very hard to — we have to practice what we preach. And, I suspect that there are a lot of ideas in GSA about how to do this.

My goal would be to use some of these collective intelligence tools. It is one of the things I did at [Computer Sciences Corp.]. We literally asked thousands of people across CSC how you go about getting “greener,” and a lot of people have ideas. This is not a subject that is new for people, and they are very passionate about it. So, I think we can use some of these converging techniques to narrow in on some ways at which everybody can come to an agreement. And, the sheer act of doing it brings people together who are committed to it. I will see using those tools as one of the techniques I would like to use to motivate employees.

Q: Martha, I wanted to follow up a little bit on your comments on teleworking. That’s another, like green, hot topic right now because of the snowstorm. A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to talk to Casey Coleman, your [chief information officer]. She had mentioned the rates at which GSA workers were able to telework during the snowstorm. I was wondering, aside from what you all are doing now, what else would you consider, or are [you] considering, to maybe increase the rates of teleworking within your agency? And is that, in fact, something you are considering now?

Martha Johnson: I am personally passionate about this notion that work is what you do, not where you do it. I believe we are moving away from the industrial model where we watch workers do work. That is waste as a system. There is no reason to have a cultural inspection where people are watching people. So, there is a fundamental shift in culture that everyone needs to sort of understand. And that is something that is core to this for me.

There is partnership here that is very important. And, I didn’t explicitly say it in the speech. We are about the workplace. [The Office of Personnel Management] is about the workforce. And, the virtual workplace, is the way I talk about it, is a combination of — it has to emerge from that partnership because it is a process of having the tools and techniques and also the personnel and the rules for employees that they can understand.

Telework is like the first toe in the water. We have tried it. We know a lot from it. In the [Washington] Post yesterday, or today, there are stories about telework emerging from these snowstorm. There’s a lot of understanding that the world has changed. The private sector is changing on this. They’re understanding it is costly to have centralized workplaces for people who are not necessarily there.

There is more business case to this than there used to be. There used to be the business case of more family. More family was the motivator for telework sort of notions so we could have a flexible policy with respect to workers. Now there is an environmental case, there’s a financial case, and there is a security case. We need to be able to have work done in many different places — under snowstorms. It’s a security case.

So, our business case has grown more robust over time. I feel we can be part of articulating that and working with OPM around that. So, I have a passion about that, and I will be championing that I am looking for partners.

Q: Just to follow up. This is not your first time with GSA. You’ve been away you’ve come back. How does that compare in terms of the ability to be able to do teleworking now between the last time you were there and the last time you were here? You mentioned being sworn in in your kitchen during the snowstorm, and that’s got to be a big difference in the way that you can prosecute the business.

Martha Johnson: There is no question that technology has been the enabler over the last decade. I mean, it’s not just that I work at home sitting at my computer. It’s that I’m working on the Metro on my BlackBerry, and I can download documents and I can actually read them. So, we have a lot more technique that’s helping us. And, I think that as we have used telework we’ve gotten closer to understanding what really are the people issues, rather than sort of the fantasy about it when we have tried it before.

So, from before, when I was there in the ‘90s, telework was on the agenda and people were eager about it, but the whole society hadn’t joined in. Now the corporate world has really joined in and I think it’s on the message.

Q: You talked about collective intelligence. Talk a little more about that and how you see that evolving right now.

Martha Johnson: Collective intelligence, as I was trying to paint a picture of, is sort of the next generation of the collective technology, the social media and new media tools. We are learning, we have the technologies, we now need to develop a few of the executive functions around them. Some of the technologies could be a much more sort of zipped-up or personalized. But, I think that we are recognizing there are issues of governance, there are issues of skill, there’s issues of how you communicate ideas and how you put together those ideas so you are converging on a solution. And, some of these notions are swarm notions, where you are just literally going out and saying, “Who knows about this?” Others are how people are refining ideas that they’re giving in.

One of the biggest hurdles of collective intelligence, I think, is the issue of intellectual property. If you’re joining a collective intelligence discussion, you are actually going to give up your signature on an idea because the idea is going to get taken and changed. People have to kind of understand that and have the skill and interpersonal skill to share ideas knowing that others will pick up on them, refine them, and make them better, and not start clutching at them.

So, there is a lot of executive skill around this. And, I think that’s just a frontier for us that’s going to be very exciting. I really — I worked on this for about two or three years at CSC, doing these. We had to start small and we added to them but we were getting to the point of managing problem-solving across silos, which allowed a different conversation. In the past you know people would get in a room and well, “You know I’m doing it OK, you know it’s those guys.” But, if you are do it online they are not quite in the room having quite the same old conversation, so you can break up some of that stuff that’s clogging the system. So, it interrupts things in ways you don’t really know, and we are learning about that and until we are really on top of that we just need to keep in the experimental stage and keep working on it. Fascinating field, fascinating field!

Q: I wonder if you can draw the line between transparency between group acquisition, does that need online tools in order to know what your customer wants?

Martha Johnson: I think improved acquisition is a combination of things. I think we can improve from rules, but we have done that over and over again. There’s been a lot of work on the [Federal Acquisition Regulation] and all the acquisitions rules. But, we also can ask for good ideas among our customers so that we can be improving on the application of those rules. So, I think there’s some water to be squeezed out of the improving of the rules.

I think there is an education process that happens when you are asking people in these sort of BetterBuy online techniques where you are gathering ideas and getting people to talk about it. There’s an education in there, best practices and improvements you can move on.

But the real place that I think we need to focus is on talent. It’s about helping people not just know what the rules are but to help everyone to understand how you can interpret, how do you negotiate, how do really understand needs, how do you assess those needs, and be a real agent for procurement, not the procurement enforcer.

Q: How does specifically transparency work into that? The FAR is already posted online.

Martha Johnson: Let me put it this way, I think the community of people that are involved in using the FAR -- contracting officers, acquisition people, procurement, project managers -- I don’t think they are enough of a community. I think that online we can have “communities of practicing” where people are sharing their thoughts, showing each other examples, asking the world how you handle this kind of situation, and use each other's intelligence, the collective intelligence, for better opportunities and customers themselves. So, there’s a missing piece there, but there’s a transparency among the experts that I don’t think we have as equally and as with as much forthcoming and sort of style as we could.

Q: I guess my last question would in be your speech though when you said, online transparency lets you understand the customer better. The example you just gave talks about contracting officers getting to know each other better. So, I’m still wondering if you can draw the line between getting to know the customer through transparency and how those relate?

Martha Johnson: I think it’s a matter of how many additions to the sentence I can put up.

I think that the contracting world talking to each other, not only those that are internal to the GSA for example, you’ve got the client receiving procurement office, so that’s the customer.

And in fact, that’s an issue we have, who is the customer? Is it, you know, the secretary or the [deputy secretary], the admin person, etc. But, there is clearly a way in which they’re seeing the contract databases, they're understanding what we are doing, our being able to talk back and forth more easily is going to help acquisition.

Q: Two part, Administrator Johnson, the open government is really led by the White House. Your speech today was evident that GSA continues to be lead in the directive. How do you see the collaboration, or better said, who is your best partner as you, in your early stage, as an agency that represents an example of collaboration so that it benefits the customer, it benefits internal workings?

Martha Johnson: You’re asking me what other agencies I might work with in this way?

Q: Yes.

Martha Johnson: I would — there are many agencies that we can have a lot of collaboration and synergy with so, I would imagine it would be which agencies are interested in jumping on it. As I said, our partnership with OPM for example is going to be pretty vital and I would expect that that would be really helpful.

It’s more than just other agencies too. It’s all the industry and our industry partners. I don’t know yet. I mean we are going to be unfolding this.

I think it’s important for us to explain that open government is both about transparency and collaboration and those two pieces are a bit distinct and require some different technologies and skills. And, paint that picture, practice it inside and see where it goes, and then be more intentional about going out and asking people to join us.

Q: So do you see the largest construction project in the country here at St. Elizabeth as an example of where there’s tons of procurement activity that will happen as a result of different agencies, like [the Homeland Security Department] and [Federal Emergency Management Agency and others]?

Martha Johnson: I mean that would be a tremendous arena.

Q: I just wanted to know what you thought of — where you see GSA’s position vis-à-vis IT going over the course of your time at GSA?

Martha Johnson: I just emerged from the IT industry, but I want to be real careful, I am not an IT person. I’m more of a generalized executive, I guess. I see the IT world in three ways, and this is Martha in her simple-mindedness if you will. I will see how it plays out.

On the one hand, we have all this new social networking and social media kind of innovative hi-touch, lots of people can use, things going on. This is the blogging and the tweeting and all that sort of thing. And, Dave McClure [associate administrator for for citizen services and communications] inside GSA is paying attention to it. This is very innovative, and it is sort of technology pulling how we behave. That’s cool.

The second piece that is going on is things like cloud computing. Now cloud is a part of utility -- utility, in terms of how people get to there IT. Cloud is another way of sharing and shaping and perhaps “greening” how we get to our IT functions and making that a better value. So, I think that’s a different kind of arena.

The third is that there is legacy IT infrastructure in the government, which is a unique story in and of itself. And, I am eager to find ways of thinking about this and moving on it so that we can push through some of those issues. I know e-gov and the work that has gone on for the last decade is about sort of professionalizing the IT community, bringing in architecture in a different way, understanding the integration of IT into the business of the agencies. You know there is a lot of business positioning that this speaks to, but it continues to be that the government has very large legacy systems and when you think about 10, 15 years worth of work to approve them or change them, even five years is too much. There is a speed issue and there’s just a lot of complexity to these.

Yet, I still think we can, we need to move, in terms of our sheer smarts about this. That is a big arena and I come from CSC, so that’s an arena they’re in. I understand some of the difficulty there.

Over all of this is the issue of “greening”—the whole issue of green IT. How do we think about these new technologies that are coming and what are they demanding of us? And, that goes to the data centers and all the other apparatus around it. How do we dispose of computers and do that in a green way? So, there’s sort of a couple cross-cutting themes in those three arenas.

Q: And where do you see, from your perspective, what can you at GSA do to facilitate those things? I mean you mentioned what Dave [McClure] is doing.

Martha Johnson: He’s also working on the “cloud.” The “cloud” is really explicitly important and the big legacy challenge. Our roll in e-gov, our roll with [the Office of Management and Budget], our roll in taking in that dialogue is an important one. And, I’m looking to understanding and seeing how much we are doing and how we can evolve that. I think we have our fingers in all those things, some with a lot more activity right now.

About the Author

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

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