GSA's Johnson: Tight budgets should trigger innovation not fear

Martha Johnson’s phone started ringing incessantly in June.

That was when the reality of coming budget cuts really started to sink in at agencies, and worried leaders were seeking the General Services Administration’s help, said Johnson, GSA administrator and a keynote speaker at the Executive Leadership Conference in Williamsburg, Va., which is hosted by the American Council on Technology-Industry Advisory Council.

“It’s an interesting inflection point,” she said. “Budgets that we got [in the past] often put us on a diet. What’s being done here is, our stomachs are being stapled. It is not a diet – we are going to lose weight one way or another.”

That realization brought agency leaders to Johnson’s office in Washington D.C. She sees them falling into two basic categories.

“The first kind of leader is in absolute panic,” she said. “This is a leader who is terrified about what it happening to programs. I can appreciate that sheer terror.”

But she’s also seeing another kind of leader, she said: One who acknowledges the dire times, but attacks the problem saying, “It is a time for judo.”

That creates a critical role for GSA as the government’s chief purchasing agency and real estate manager, she said. GSA orchestrates efforts of agencies to increase efficiencies and save costs. It also “goes first” in many ways, demonstrating to agencies how things can be done.

“We are really proud of our innovation DNA,” she said. “We want to be above the fold in telling you that.”

GSA's innovations include retrofitting buildings to be more efficient with energy and space. She said that as mobility tools enable more people to work from remote locations, with only rare appearances in the office, the government should reconsider the practice of allotting a certain amount of square footage per employee.

The GSA recently moved its e-mail service to a cloud platform in a further effort to increase mobility. E-mail needs to be available from any location on any device, something the cloud platform facilitates, she said.

The sustainability agenda overall is about management, not just environmental stewardship, she said. Learning to manage organizations with sustainability in mind leads to a range of changes in how things are done that result in increased efficiencies and lowered costs.

Johnson also highlighted Challenge.gov, a collaborative website through which people can submit ideas to solve problems, with monetary prizes available for the best solutions.

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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