Looking past November to chart GSA’s future

Frank McDonough 180The General Services Administration has a treasure trove of special skills and knowledge not available elsewhere in the government. But in many ways, GSA has been treading water. After the upcoming presidential election, it will be time for the agency to position itself for the next decade.

GSA is not immune to broader societal changes, and it has reorganized and consolidated many times since Congress created it in 1949. Its workforce has declined 70 percent in 31 years — from 42,000 employees in 1980 to 12,600 in 2011 — and yet GSA still allows agencies to acquire the goods, services and office space they need quickly and at a good price.

However, the conditions that led to its formation 63 years ago are much different today. For example, there are few negotiated contracts in the government now. Ninety-five percent of contracting is simply order taking due to schedules and indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts.

As a result, the government as a whole might no longer need its army of 30,000 contract specialists and 3,000 purchasing agents and should consider reversing the balance between contract specialists and purchasing agents at all agencies.

And for all its changes, GSA’s workforce is highly compartmentalized and too often frustrated and unhappy.

Those conditions suggest a series of questions GSA leaders should be addressing, including:

  • Which GSA jobs have become more complex because technology demands higher skills? Which jobs have become less complex although their official position descriptions still require high-level skills?
  • What skills does GSA need to develop to thrive in the networking age?
  • What functions should GSA perform for agencies in five to 10 years? Which current functions should be consolidated, minimized or dropped entirely?
  • How could GSA use the Semantic Web and data-mining tools such as the Domain Awareness System jointly developed by the New York City Police Department and Microsoft to retrieve and display information from multiple sources?
  • How can GSA make the best use of all its talented employees, down to the GS-7 level?
  • Would it be possible to flatten some management levels at GSA?
  • How can GSA become an agency without boundaries and create an environment in which creativity, innovation and flexibility are encouraged?
  • How can GSA make the best use of emerging digital tools and enhance younger employees’ ability to think, learn, communicate, solve problems and in general be more creative than previous generations?

To respond to those challenges, GSA leaders should:

  1. Announce they are committed to moving GSA into the future.
  2. Employ two futurists to discuss the emerging trends in governance and technology.
  3. Rely on collective intelligence and crowdsourcing by organizing brainstorming teams based on age, not grade level, to develop answers to questions and vote on the top five ideas put forward by each team.
  4. Establish an implementation team with a two-year deadline to work with line managers and implement the changes recommended by the brainstorming teams. The implementation team should have the power to influence the performance ratings of line managers.

The government needs one organization to be an early adopter of the opportunities presented by the macro trends and transitions occurring in American society. With re-energized leadership after the election, GSA could set an example for the rest of government — and for other governments around the world.

About the Author

Consultant Frank A. McDonough is former deputy associate administrator of the General Services Administration’s Office of Intergovernmental Solutions.

Cyber. Covered.

Government Cyber Insider tracks the technologies, policies, threats and emerging solutions that shape the cybersecurity landscape.


Reader comments

Sun, Sep 8, 2013 Ken Mewes United States

Good article, Frank. Do you have a blog?

Mon, Oct 15, 2012 Owen Ambur Hilton Head Island, SC

Frank's plan is now available in StratML format at The vision of the the StratML standard is: "A worldwide web of intentions, stakeholders, and results." Its more explicit purposes are outlined at Consistent with sections 2 and 10 of GPRAMA, GSA should demonstrate leadership by example in crowdsourcing not only the drafting and publication of its strategic and performance plans and reports in StratML format but also the achievement of its objectives.

Fri, Oct 12, 2012 Peter G. Tuttle, CPCM

All valid concerns and challenges! Even though Mr. McDonough's article is focused on GSA, these are areas which all Federal agencies should be delving into to ensure their organizations and staffs are positioned to meet the Nation's support missions of today and the future. Given the tremendous challenges our Federal agencies are facing in the face of slashed budgets, loss of knowledge/skills through retirements and employee churn, and the steady growth of mission, Mr. McDonough's head-on approach might be very useful.

Fri, Oct 12, 2012 SPMayor Summit Point, WV

Mr. McDonough offers some sage advice to current and future GSA leadership. He posits objectives that could be reached any number of ways and ,I believe, therein lies the rub. While I believe there are some very capable leaders and managers at GSA, I don't think there are enough of them. To be an early adopter is to embrace uncertainty and risk with enthusiasm, knowing full-well that institutional deliberateness will stall most chances for success. There needs to be a very carefully crafted set of rules of goverance & discipline to guide leadership to quick and responsible decisions that focus on success and achievment. For example, a really good Contracting Officer can summarize the business and regulatory expectations of the FAR in one page; it is the page, not the 1,858 pages [small bound copy of FAR] that should be guiding leadership. And far fewer pages should be guiding the daily work of the staff.

Fri, Oct 12, 2012

What a great challenge to GSA and an insightful set of questions for GSA senior management. Where I'm disappointed is in the recommendations provided. Hire two "futurists"? Seriously? As you pointed out, there is significant expertise already in the agency and one problem is senior leadership isn't benefiting from that expertise. How about letting some of the "futurists" within GSA get attention for their trend analysis? And brainstorming teams by age? So capacity for innovation and/or awareness of new management methods and technology ends at, what, age 30, 33, 42...? Yes, GSA needs to do a better job of assuring the talents of younger professional staff are brought to the forefront but I'm not sure engaging in what amounts to age discrimination is the best recommendation. Overall, identification of GSA as an agency that can serve as a model for the government of the future that takes advantage of macro trends, especially technology, is fantastic! Thank you for understanding what a great agency GSA is, the quality of its staff and the value it provides, currently and in the future.

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