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By Steve Kelman

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The GSA scandal as a teaching tool

 A year ago, before the GSA conference scandal broke out, we introduced a new case in our introductory management and leadership course at the Kennedy School, written about the decision by the new GSA administrator, Martha Johnson, to emphasize “zero environmental footprint” as her central strategic goal. The aim of the case was to discuss whether it was a good idea to focus on a goal somewhat outside GSA’s traditional mission, and also to discuss whether Johnson should have used more of a planning process before selecting the goal. In the case, Johnson was quoted as saying: “I didn’t want to spend weeks in a conference center, talking about our mission and our goals and so on.… I was trying to give people relief from forever-and-away planning, sifting, strategizing, talking, meeting, and so on, because GSA is an organization of action, and it really simply needs a couple of big channels to work in, and then everybody will take off.”

Last year – though I actually tried to nudge them in a more questioning direction – the vast majority of the students were really enamored of what Johnson had done.

Then the GSA conference scandal hit, and Johnson resigned as GSA administrator. Originally, I wasn’t sure what to do with the case the Kennedy School had spent a lot of time and money developing, and asked myself (and our case program):  “Can we possibly teach this again?”

Finally, I decided to do the following: We would teach the original case as is, noting the scandal in the syllabus and telling the students we would have a subsequent class specifically on the GSA conference scandal. The new class – which I decided to call “Martha Johnson and GSA: The Sequel” – would appear in the part of the course dealing with “organizational design,” and specifically after a discussion of the upsides and downsides of decisions to design an organization using lots of rules to prescribe behavior versus giving frontline employees more autonomy/discretion to choose what decisions make most sense.

I checked out a few things to prepare for the class. One of the phrases that was much-ridiculed in media coverage of the GSA conference was spending money on a “team building” exercise at the conference involving assembling bicycles (the phrase was almost always put in quotation marks, so as to heighten the sense of absurdity and waste). So I decided to do a Google search under the phrase “team building conference” to see how common this kind of activity was in the world of conferences and training. The phrase yielded over one billion  Google hits, the vast majority for conferences organized for corporate customers, including one company specializing in Caribbean team building conferences for companies, which featured bathing-suited trainees on a beach.

I also looked more carefully at the videos “exposed” by the Huffington Post as “embarrassing,” some of which were played frequently on TV during the scandal. One involved, as the media reported, a clown, who, according to the Huffington Post, boasted about avoiding work. I would urge people to examine the “embarrassing” video – it is a humorous attempt (which probably could be criticized more for being heavy-handed than anything else) to make fun of an employee who doesn’t pull his weight while others are trying to. A video described by the Huffington Post as showing GSA employees “destroying government property” was actually a humorous parody on Johnson’s “zero environmental footprint” policy calling on GSA to save energy – it featured three GSA employees sleeping in one small hotel room (including in the shower), shaving together in the bathroom so as not to waste water, and so forth – the office property was an unneeded printer that wouldn’t be printing unnecessary copies of documents.

Of course, unless somebody was an expert on Johnson’s save-energy policies – which the GSA employees at the conference presumably were and which my students were since they had earlier done a case on this initiative – the point of this whole video would have been lost. Finally, I suspect most of those listening on TV to the “I Wanna Be Commissioner So Fricking Bad” parody sung by the hapless ukulele-strumming Hawaiian GSA employee were unaware of the then-current pop song “I Wanna Be a Billionnaire So Fricking Bad” that it was playing on.

Finally, I Googled “Zero Environmental Footprint GSA” and “Western Regions Conference GSA.”  Many blog readers, particularly those in government, will be unsurprised to learn that the former – which is the substantive policy Johnson had actually been spending her time on, as my students knew from the earlier case – got 16,000 hits and the latter 210,000. The first three listings for hits for the former were GSA press releases, while three of the first four for the latter were the Washington Post, Politico, and Youtube. This is how the media cover government agencies.

In my next blog I’ll report on the conversation in class with my students on the scandal and its implications for government management.

Posted on Oct 17, 2012 at 12:09 PM

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Reader comments

Fri, Oct 19, 2012 Chun Li Beijing

Look forward to the followings. It must be highly welcomed by students with the latest cases in class. Is there any strict rules for introducing newly event in class as the case? or the teacher need rewrite the case materials? By the way, it's much better to read the webpage than before after FCW website beautified it.

Thu, Oct 18, 2012 SPMayor Summit Point, WV

I await your next column with interest as I would like to 'hear' what the student comments were. What I will note is that your review of the conference was more thoughtful and reflected more due diligence than any responsible reporter seems to have displayed. Yes, the conference was an embarassment in some ways - you can't explain or defend everything that took place. But whatr was really disconcerting was GSA's leadership inability or unwillingness to stand tall and provide some of the rationale explanations your own research and that of your students discovered. I am not foolish enough to presume such explanations would have turned the tide or prevented the criticism; however, I do think they would have stemmed the loss of energy and employee pride experienced throughout the rest of the organization. And as to Martha's grand goal for GSA - when first announced in Orlando GSA contractors were troubled and dismayed. The needs of the Agency were seen as being given short shrift in the pursuit of a political agenda. Martha's underlying rationale to avoid the tiresome activities of bureaucracy were well intentioned and did reflect a new approach to the challenge. But the goal and its priority overlooked and avoided the most critical needs of GSA in a time of transition and change.

Wed, Oct 17, 2012 Jed Sundwall San Diego

I'd love to take this class! The reaction to the GSA scandal and its fallout is a textbook example of how the media / congress exploits the public's mistrust of public servants. The media had a field day blowing the conference out of proportion and the result is more insidious oversight, leading to a less effective organization, leading to more mistrust of public servants. It's a vicious cycle. Looking forward to your next post!

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