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Tangherlini: 'On the technology front, we're just getting going'

Dan Tangherlini

A tech-savvy DevOps team. An open office environment. And far less damning congressional hearings. 2014 looked a whole lot better for the General Services Administration than 2013.

FCW's Colby Hochmuth recently spoke with GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini about how the agency is mapping its strategy for change and its plans to improve service delivery to its customers. This discussion was edited for clarity.

Many of GSA's programs in the past few years have been geared toward bringing in talented employees to work for the government for a year or two. How do you see that playing out in terms of sustaining long-term change at agencies?

Even in the case of the short-term project-based opportunities, we found about one-third of the Presidential Innovation Fellows stayed on to be in 18F or U.S. Digital Service. In many cases, what we're providing people are introductory opportunities to come into a place where normally they wouldn't think they'd want to come.

Look, there's been an awful lot of negative press about the government -- about who works there, what it's like to work there. I think the only way to overcome that is giving people some opportunity to have an experience and see that while there are many challenges, there is actually an opportunity to make a difference and have an impact. And that's why we've seen it to be a very effective recruiting tool.

The other thing you have to think about is that the vast majority of our hiring still happens through the traditional civil service mechanism. We're talking about hundreds of people rather than dozens of people. And those are people who are largely making a commitment to more than one project or one year.

At the same time, we have a very substantial and meaningful demographic shift that's taking place in the workplace. People aren't committing to jobs for 30 years, 20 years or even 10 years, and you have a lot of people who are multiple-career people. And while I've been a civil servant for more than two decades, I've also had a lot of jobs.

That's more and more a trend, and as an organization that's recruiting, we have to recognize that trend and recognize the marketplace and figure out ways to compete.

So you don't see that shift as an obstacle for creating some continuity in government?

I see it as a challenge, but we're also seeing more and more that the trick is to create systems and processes that allow for more worker flexibility and that are less dependent on someone having some specific knowledge developed over many, many years.

If we have a procurement system that requires, as one person told me, seven years for someone to be proficient in dealing with it, then we have to ask ourselves: Do we have a meaningfully flexible and responsive procurement system?

How do you apply this insight to building your own team?

In the leadership level at GSA that's been evolving over the last few years, we have a combination of people with really robust and deep experience in government agencies, such as Tom Sharpe; people with both experience in multiple agencies but also the private sector, like Norm Dong; people coming into government for the first time, like Christine Harada; and people who have been committed long-term to aspects of public service, like Toni Harris.

So I think the trick in any good agency to...get the most perspective and the best blend is to look at the management team and make sure it's reflective of the full universe of what's available in the government and outside.

How do you define GSA's mission? The agency is a landlord and property manager, a purchasing agent, a service provider and a provider of change agents to prod other agencies. That's a lot of missions to manage.

Nearly three years ago when I started this job, GSA was in its top-to-bottom review, and that was one of the first questions we had to ask and answer. So we launched something called the Great Ideas Hunt, where we challenged all 12,000 GSA employees to give us their best ideas about how to recast the mission so it could be more specific and focused.

What we arrived at is a much clearer statement of who we are and what we do -- the kind of thing where if you said it at the Thanksgiving [dinner] table, everyone around the table would get what we do. And that is to provide the best value in real estate, acquisition and technology services to federal agencies and ultimately the American people.

What would constitute success in the way that all these missions are running, whether they're intersecting or parallel?

I think success looks a lot like the workplace transformation initiative that we brought the Federal Acquisition Service and Public Buildings Service together to co-partner on. That's a co-investment in furniture and technology that allows agencies to transform the way they deliver service through their space.

So I think success looks like PBS and FAS not being two stand-alone entities in their different missions but being a set of partners who are finding ways for their mission to overlap so they can improve dramatically the way agencies deliver their mission.

I think success looks like 18F, which is a partnership between FAS and the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies to think about new ways of helping agencies be better consumers of IT and rapidly increasing at scale their ability to deliver services digitally.

18F also figured out a way to speed the hiring process for its own purposes.

That's right. Robert Frost said poetry is the uncommon arrangement of common words. And I think [that's] what 18F did. We had some people with new perspectives, a real sense of urgency, a real commitment to outcomes, and respect for laws and policy and regulations who challenged the bureaucracy in a way it hadn't been challenged before.

And what we did was simply take the common words of the existing policies, regulations and processes, and arranged them in an uncommon way to create the bureaucratic poetry of being able to hire someone in four to eight weeks.

We still think it's a little long, but it's way better than the four to six months that we were experiencing normally. I appreciate the fact that 18F, which is about thinking of ways to deliver digital services in a more cost-effective way, has applied some of that thinking to even those basic services of hiring someone.

What are your New Year's resolutions for GSA?

I have lots of immediate goals, and those relate to the intermediate and long-term goals. Long term, we're trying to find ways to better leverage the federal building assets to get more value back to the taxpayer and create a better platform for agencies to deliver their mission.

We're really interested in finding ways we can do more exchanges for services and figuring out if we can explore public/private partnerships even deeper than we have before. We do have some immediate gateposts we have to get through to deliver on those longer-term goals.

On the acquisition side, we're excited about sparking the conversation around the consolidated acquisition platform and improving transparency for all people working in the federal contracting environment.

And on the technology front, we're just getting going with 18F and just getting going with the digital services conversation, working closely with USDS. It's part of a broader set of initiatives in the administration to dramatically and radically transform service delivery in a way that the American people expect and, frankly, deserve.

About the Author

Colby Hochmuth is a former staff writer for FCW.

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