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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.

J. Nicholas Hoover

April 13, 2010

5 Min Read

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.

More broadly, GSA is in the midst of a major IT modernization plan. "We're in a position where we need to do some serious updating in our IT," Johnson said, noting that she'd like to get back to the point with GSA IT where it was when she last worked for the agency in the 1990s, when GSA became only the second federal agency to be on the Internet. "I do not have the luxury of saying we're out in front of everyone, but I would like to."

The multi-phase IT transformation has already begun to take root under the eye of GSA CIO Casey Coleman. A few of the first major deliverables, like VoIP and an upgraded wide-area network, have been in the works for a while, but Coleman said in an interview that the effort is now taking place on an accelerated timeframe.

The first phase of the IT modernization effort includes a migration to MPLS and Networx (the federal government's next-generation telecommunications contract), enterprise VoIP and desktop video, improved secure access (including logical access to computers via smartcards), and enhanced remote access.

By the first big delivery date, July 4 of this year, Coleman said, GSA will have completed its MPLS migration, turn on video-streaming capabilities, and add smartcard access. In the next phase of the project, the agency will complete its move to VoIP and migrate its currently in-house e-mail to an outsourced provider.

The e-mail procurement is still in planning phases. Coleman said the procurement won't specify whether the offering needs to be simply hosted by a third party or in an actual cloud computing environment, but she expects there to be some interest from cloud providers.

Although GSA is undergoing a wider transformation, acquisition still remains a key element of the agency's focus -- after all, it's the GSA's largest role along with the agency's Public Building Service (the self-described "landlord to the federal government"). In terms of acquisition, Johnson sees a need to adjust to the challenges of fast-moving technology and an understaffed, often underqualified acquisition workforce.

In order to help agencies keep up with the pace of Moore's Law, Johnson sees opportunities for GSA to help agencies break major projects into smaller chunks with shorter delivery cycles, and also to introduce agencies to innovative Web 2.0 and cloud technologies in a streamlined fashion.

Additionally, she said the GSA needs to pay more attention to the readiness of its acquisition workforce by placing a renewed focus on training in areas like policy, listening to customer needs, and contracting skills. "If you want to get advice from a stockbroker, you pay for his opinions and astuteness, not for his ability to read a research report," she said.

"We've put the acquisition workforce in a spot where we haven't trained them and have overloaded on them, so often they're more focused on things like [Federal Acquisition Regulation, the main set of procurement rules] than on the customers."

About the Author(s)

J. Nicholas Hoover

Senior Editor, InformationWeek Government

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