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GSA Seeks Role As 'Change Agent'

New GSA administrator Martha Johnson looks to transform the federal agency with better use of technology as well as cultural and process improvements.

The General Services Administration, which provides goods, services, and office space to other federal agencies, must become more innovative and expand beyond mere "acquisition" to meet today's challenges, and technology will play a central role in that transformation, the agency's new administrator Martha Johnson said in an interview.

"The old GSA was always positioning itself as an acquisition organization, but we're so much more," Johnson said, pointing to GSA's work in areas like design and even policy. "We can be a source of innovation while at the same time also continuing to help people wade through the complexities of procurement."

In a speech Sunday night at the annual Information Resources Management Conference in Cambridge, Md., Johnson announced a new mission statement for the agency that focuses on a combination of innovation and delivering on Obama organization initiatives.

According to that new mission statement, "GSA's mission is to use expertise to provide innovative solutions for our customers in support of their missions and by so doing foster an effective, sustainable, and transparent government for the American people."

Much of this transformation revolves around a notion of "customer intimacy." According to Johnson, GSA needs to become closer to its customers by doing things like shouldering risk for customers in areas like procurement and by answering legal questions that its customers may not have the capacity to answer. For example, GSA should be able to outline for its customers the legal backdrop behind the use of social networks in government.

In order to help forecast and better manage GSA's possible new directions, Johnson recently hired new staff to do risk management, business analytics, and scenario work. She says that on one hand, the agency has become encumbered by too many metrics that mean too little. "You shouldn't be measuring the pennies if you don't have the dollars under control," she said.

Nevertheless, Johnson said, the agency still needs to have a sophisticated view of its own risk and be able to analyze how GSA might evolve if any number of different policy changes come to pass.

Underneath this sharpening of GSA's focal points, Johnson said, GSA also needs to eat its own dog food. "We need to be our own proving ground," she said. "We need to practice what we preach."

Translated, that means that Johnson is actively looking at process improvements, cultural improvements, and even broad IT modernization at GSA. For example, she is encouraging the broad use of social media at GSA. "Social media has powerful new potential for government, but GSA needs to understand what it is and how it can help, and we need to do it ourselves or else we won't have the power to encourage others in turn," she said.

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