Tangherlini: 'Rome wasn't burnt in a day'

GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini remains effusive about the problem-solving potential of government.

Dan Tangherlini

GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini says "there's no better problem solver in the world than the U.S. government."

Dan Tangherlini is optimistic about the power of government, but sees the need for a greater sense of urgency to spur efforts to reform outmoded business practices and incentivize federal workers to assume more risk in testing new approaches to intractable problems.

"There's no better problem solver in the world than the U.S. government," General Services Administration head Tangherlini said in an onstage interview at the ACT-IAC Executive Leadership Conference in Williamsburg, Va., on Oct. 28. But the U.S. leverages this power only in times of emergency or concerted demand, whether it's fighting World War II or sending astronauts to the moon.

The challenge government faces is bottling that kind of urgency on a day-to-day basis, to allow federal workers to adopt a start-up mentality, "to give people opportunity to experiment with risk," Tangherlini said.

A big obstacle for feds is being "mouse-trapped" by regulation. CIOs and other federal IT executives are bound by the need to file investment reports with the Office of Management and Budget and respond to requests from appropriators and oversight bodies in Congress.

"We work in a world in which there are certain expectations ... that militate toward the waterfall. We spend 20 years learning how to do the waterfall. We build agencies and consultancies around waterfalling. And now everyone shows up and says, 'that's out, '" Tangherlini said. But getting agencies to pivot to agile software development is going to take time and effort. Tangherlini said, "We have to recognize, as Yogi Berra said, 'Rome wasn't burnt in a day.'"

Using that metaphor, 18F, the experimental coding and design shop housed in GSA, has the job of pouring gasoline on the fire. "18F has done an awful lot helping us transform the way we're doing internal business. We joke that if it were to end tomorrow, if nothing else, it taught us how to hire people faster," Tangherlini said.

"We're hoping that by having people who know how to code, know how to design, really are thoughtful of business process and the application of technology to it, that we can be a better consumer of information technology resources, and we can share that with other agencies," Tangherlini said. He noted that too often government is unable to realize efficiencies and effectiveness from the application of technology.

As a senior official in Washington, D.C. local government, Tangherlini helped move city agencies to a single platform for payroll, financial reporting, email, and other commodity systems.

"I think the federal government is too big for that kind of singularity. It would require us to go in perhaps too deep into one set of vendors. But we shouldn't have the completely unnavigable forest we have today, because it makes it impossible for us to get a sense of what we're spending our money on," he said.

He sees the GSA's upcoming Common Acquisition Platform, which shares pricing and contracts data across agencies, as a way to streamline awareness of what things cost.

"We have to create the Internet of acquisition," he said. The acquisition platform, which is designed to offer pricing transparency for acquisition officers across federal, state, and local government, is still being tested at GSA. There's no word yet on when it will launch.

NEXT STORY: Hamm new FedSIM director

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