New media means smarter contracting for GSA

'Collective intelligence' could juice GSA's acquisition business

Martha Johnson could be a game-changer. As the new head of the General Services Administration, Johnson is in position to influence how the government buys billions of dollars worth of technology products and services.

Many agencies acquire IT through GSA’s various governmentwide acquisition contracts, and many also rely on the agency’s on-staff experts to develop and manage those acquisitions.

Many, but by no means all. Speaking at the 2010 FOSE conference last month, Johnson said she needs to find ways to earn the business of agency officials who continue to run their own contracts or who turn to GWACs offered by other agencies.

“This is not about mandates or market changes,” Johnson told the audience. "This is in our hands. If GSA steps up its game, I am confident that GSA’s business will grow.”

In many cases, the challenge is to restore confidence among customers, especially those at the Defense Department, who had drifted away in the mid-2000s when questions arose about the agency’s acquisition practices. GSA largely appears to have overcome those problems, but some customers have not come back.

When President Barack Obama nominated Johnson to be head of GSA in April 2009, the federal IT community breathed a collective sigh of relief. Johnson, who most recently was vice president of culture at Computer Sciences Corp., had served as chief of staff for GSA Administrator David Barram in the 1990s. Many experts saw her as someone who could step in and make an immediate difference.

That proved not to be the case, only because Johnson’s confirmation was held up in the Senate because of a federal building project in Missouri.

But Johnson finally cleared the Senate in February and is now at her desk and ready to make her mark. Although she is still getting her bearings at GSA, Johnson sees some new opportunities to reinvigorate the federal acquisition process — and GSA's own business — not through rules and regulations but through technology.

After delivering her keynote speech at FOSE, Johnson sat down with a group of reporters to discuss her vision.

FCW: What is GSA’s plan for bringing in more business?

Martha Johnson: What is in our hands 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.

FCW: Do you need online tools to know what your customer wants?

Johnson: I think improved acquisition is a combination of things. I think we can improve [through rulemaking], but we have done that over and over again. But we also can ask for good ideas among our customers so that we can be improving on the application of those 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 them understand: How do you interpret [the rules]? How do you negotiate, how do you really understand needs, how do you assess those needs — and be a real agent for procurement, not the procurement enforcer?

FCW: How do you see that collective intelligence evolving?

Johnson: Collective intelligence 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 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. 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 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.

[But] 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!

FCW: How do you see the IT landscape changing during your time at GSA?

Johnson: I see the IT world in three ways. On the one hand, we have all this new social networking and social media kind of innovative high-touch, lots of people can use, things going on. This is the blogging and the tweeting and all that sort of thing.

The second piece that is going on are things like cloud computing. Now cloud is a part of utility — utility, in terms of how people get to their IT. 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. 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.

About the Author

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


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