GSA's acting administrator is no mere placeholder

Dan Tangherlini is taking some bold steps at GSA, pushing to improve the agency with tougher oversight and an eye on every penny spent. Does his temporary status jeopardize his chances of making a lasting change?

The acting administrator of the General Services Administration is no mere warm body, filling the seat until the next longterm occupant arrives. Dan Tangherlini is making some major changes inside the procurement agency now.

On July 17, Tangherlini issued a temporary hiring freeze for the entire agency and he suspended 85 percent of senior executive bonuses through fiscal 2013. Tangherlini made the decisions as he is reviewing all of GSA’s operations, including its performance awards system. He’s questioning where the bar is set too low for assessing superior employee efforts at work. He's also canceled conferences and taken other significant steps.

Tangherlini came to GSA from the Treasury Department in April, as the GSA was embroiled in a scandal that took down its well-respected administrator, Martha Johnson, and several senior officials in the headquarters and regional offices of GSA's Public Buildings Service. The fiasco centered on a swanky $822,000 conference for roughly 300 GSA employees held in Las Vegas in 2010.

This week, Tangherlini canceled the 2012 GovEnergy Conference, which had been scheduled Aug. 19 in St. Louis, saying it didn't meet his standards for conferences and contracts surrounding conferences.

Such moves may seem bold for someone with "acting" in his title, but Tangherlini is getting nods of approval from around government.

“Tangherlini has considerable support in the administration and on the Hill to make bold moves at GSA,” said Larry Allen, president and founder of the Allen Federal Business Partners. 

Following the conference scandal, several members of Congress introduced bills to get a grip on conference spending in government. GSA took a lot of heat in Congressional speeches and statements, and one House member even recommended abolishing the agency.

In a blog post, Tangherlini wrote it’s prudent for GSA to suspend hiring and cut executive bonuses to align with the outcomes of his top-down review of the agency.

“I believe that these immediate changes will help the agency achieve better clarity about our compensation and hiring process as we continue to bring the maximum level of efficiency and effectiveness to the work we do every day,” he wrote.

Dennis Fischer, who was acting GSA administrator for four months at the start of the Clinton administration, also applauded Tangherlini's initiatives. “To think the acting administrator role is only a care-taker is a serious mistake,” said Fischer, who’s now a consultant at AOC Solutions, a financial management service provider. He worked at GSA from 1992 to 2000.

His advice to the acting administrator: Do the things you think are best. “Tangherlini has the ability to do something, if he feels it’s the right thing,” he said.

According to his blog post, Tangherlini believes GSA needs a revamped bonus award structure. GSA has more than 15 different ones. There are questions about GSA’s high award rate and whether officials have set performance goals high enough across GSA.

“I believe performance awards should be issued for exemplary service that goes above and beyond the basic, expected level of performance,” he wrote.

Fischer said that it would best to have about half of senior executives earning the bonuses. With too few bonuses, employees may believe there’s no chance for them to get the award so they may not push so hard. With too many bonuses, there’s a stigma attached to those who don’t receive it. Those employees may end up thinking the agency doesn’t value their work.

However, the reaction to Tangherlini's moves isn't all positive.

“My initial reaction is that it’s another overreaction,” Bill Bransford, general counsel of the Senior Executives Association, told GovExec. “I believe that all senior executives, regardless of how good of a job they do, are being punished because of the misdeeds of one person.”

Allen said Tangherlini’s decision to cancel the bonuses may be for congressional overseers, more than on the basis of sound agency management.

“I think GSA managers have a reasonable expectation that they should be treated more individually and not as cattle,” he said. “There are hard working people at GSA right now who are doing just as much to rehabilitate GSA’s image as the acting administrator is. They should be compensated for their efforts that are ‘above and beyond.’”

There is always the risk that the next appointed administrator could just undo the acting administrator's work , Allen acknowledged. However, he believes that Tangherlini's reforms have a good chance of continuing.

“Whoever is nominated [as GSA administrator] moving forward—regardless of party—will have to answer the bonus and compensation issue as part of his or her nomination process,” Allen said.

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