COMMENTARY

Putting the GSA Humpty Dumpty back together again

Bob Woods is president of Topside Consulting Group and former commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology Service.

As a former General Services Administration leader, this has been a painful time for me and my former colleagues. Not only do we believe GSA is still relevant and needed, but it is time for some real and positive change.

In my first all-hands meeting as commissioner of GSA’s Federal Technology Service in the mid-1990s, I confided to our employees that I was a 25-year dissatisfied customer of the agency. Although I believed in capitalizing on the federal government’s buying power to save the taxpayer money, I believed strongly that some at GSA had lost sight of the importance of agency customers and the ultimate customer, the American taxpayer. I secretly worried that such criticism could turn even our most dedicated employees against my agenda.

I could not have been more wrong. Our employees worked hard to serve our customers and provide IT and telecommunication services to them at unprecedented low prices. By the time I retired, we had driven long-distance telephone rates to levels not offered anywhere else in the world. Commercial rates followed ours, and residential rates followed the commercial ones.

Although current events are taking their toll on the agency’s leadership, there is reason for hope and optimism. In the political and bureaucratic world of government, it is important to never let a crisis go unused or unheeded. The deeds of Jeffrey Neely and his colleagues are signs of other lapses in judgment governmentwide. While lawmakers on Capitol Hill rail about their outrage, key leadership positions are allowed to sit unfilled for months and years. We have a better chance of being killed by a meteor than having a federal budget done on time — that’s Oct. 1, in case the last 13 years without an on-time budget have dulled your memory.

The current crisis should be examined for what it says about the need for fundamental change at GSA and other federal agencies. It is time to form a commission or task force of the Hoover variety to examine the causes of the current failures and determine what fixes are needed. The examination should be analytical, objective and nonpartisan. GSA performs a function that needs to be done and done well. Forcing that type of function back to the back rooms of individual agencies is not progress.

The next steps in the current saga will not be easy ones. The bloodletting and examinations are not over and might not be over for weeks or months. When they are done, GSA needs to be reformed according to today’s rules and realities.

To start with, GSA has too many regions with too much autonomy. In the name of local innovation and empowerment, those 11 administrative units deliver 11 flavors of service with 11 interpretations of the rules and business processes. Customers and industry have long figured out how to shop for the answers they want and the conditions they prefer. Next, GSA needs a budget process overseen by the customers they serve. I cannot imagine a customer board of directors ever approving the conference that took place in this most recent debacle. And finally, there needs to be some basic training for senior managers on what it means to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars.

During a recent vacation, I saw a linen kitchen towel in a New Orleans gift shop. It said, “What happens tonight is on Facebook tomorrow.” I guess the conference planning group missed that one.

About the Author

Bob Woods is president of Topside Consulting Group and former commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology Service.

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