Skip to main content

Johnson Says GSA is The Big Engine that Will

Remarks as delivered.

Remarks by
Martha Johnson
U.S. General Services Administration
TechAmerica CIO Conference
Washington, DC
March 23, 2010

Hello everybody. 

I realize that you are all drinking coffee and I’ll try to keep you all from having to need two cups.

I am delighted to be here. I believe that this kind of event, TechAmerica, my kids would call a swarm. That’s the new language. It's a time when you can get together and cluster and report; a place to swap and share ideas and best practices. I think those opportunities do not occur enough. They are partnerships that we can all benefit from, so I am delighted to be here for that.

I want to begin with a very direct message to you. I accepted president Obama’s nomination to be the GSA administrator to basically transform GSA into the "Big Engine that Will."

GSA’s mission is to support our customers; and understand, our customers are across government. Truly, across government, we have a unique position. Our mission is to support our customers in their mission. We are embedded in our customers in a way that gives us a lot of opportunity and a lot of challenge. To advance their missions and therefore fulfill ours, we need to take this opportunity to seize change so that our customers can fulfill their mission as of 2010 with innovative and creative solutions, not with the solutions and tools of the past. Part of what I’m talking about here is change.

And in so doing in serving our customers around their missions of change, I would like for you to think about GSA as a change agent for the government. I think that’s a powerful way to explain what we do and how we want to position ourselves.

We will do this with information technologies, with building technologies, and, actually, with human technologies. We will be in partnership and collaboration with you – both industry partners and with our customers. And, the notion of change agent – I  want to explain and explore that here with you -- so that you will find this both sensible as well as perhaps a little sensational. It is a powerful idea and I am very excited to be a part of it.

So I think about this ... GSA is the change agent for government. And I ask myself well, so where to change? What has happened? My first five to six weeks in the office I had been running around asking this question, "What’s changed in GSA?" I didn’t want to make any assumptions; I want to get with the program. And let me tell you what I’ve learned so far.

First of all, the federal workforce has changed dramatically. As new people come in – perhaps it’s the most pointed – but clearly we are beginning to look at the workplace as not the place you are but the place you do your work. The workplace is the work that you do, not the place you are.  This is a move away because remember we run real estate, so we are all about work being a place that you go and sit, a place where you go and people visually supervise you, and where you go and punch a time clock. This is the old industrial model and certainly the federal government still considers the workplace in a strongly geographical way. Granted, with telework, we have put our mission into terms of thinking about it differently, but clearly, we are beginning to change. The new people coming into the organization are all about carrying their work around, but they are not about necessarily sitting at a desk.

During a massive snow storm five or six weeks ago, over 60 percent of GSA was online and working from their homes. We are able to do virtual work and this is increasingly part of who we are and how we can function. I will also say that this notion of virtual work and the changing workplace is particularly poignant to me because I was unable to get to Washington to be sworn in, so I was sworn in over the phone in my kitchen. And there’s a price to see the pictures. We’d been shoveling the snow, actually someone wanted to know if my husband was holding the phone because it is kind of complicated holding the Bible and the phone. And he was wearing his snow stuff and people wanted to know if he was in his pajamas.

In terms of the workforce changing – we are also witnessing a convergence of our geographic footprint and our carbon footprint. The cost of the geographic workplace is being reassessed as we speak. The government is currently gathering data and better and better info about our carbon usage and greenhouse gases so as to formulate better answers for how we as a government use our resources. We are on the path to becoming better sustainability stewards. Imagine how this might influence how we decide where we do our work.

This is pretty powerful.

In addition to the workplace changing, there are other notions of change that are influencing how we are thinking at GSA about what we offer. The government has to do more with less. All government people need to be smarter shoppers. That is something we can relate to in our personal lives. We hate to be taken, we want a deal and want a bargain and we don’t want to look like a fool. We don’t want to buy that suit and think, what did I spend that money for. You really want to be a smart shopper and our customers are getting obsessed about that. They really don’t want to be making mistakes.

Second, information technology has exploded in our consciousness. Nine years ago and two months when I left the administration, we had just launched FirstGov. Think about that. And now I return to government and the Obama administration wants us to use all sorts of new IT tools for transparent and open government. It has just exploded on the scene.

Third thing that has the mid 1990s the Clinger-Cohen legislation clearly retagged GSA as no longer a mandatory supplier for the federal government. At that time, we had to step back and think about how we were changing our mission and our work. And we had to learn to spell marketing. We used to have discussions about whether or not we could say that word or if we had to use training or education.

Marketing...customers, those were the things that became much more a part of our consciousness after the 1990s. So over the last 10, 12, 15 years, we have been learning more about how you create customer facing solutions. That is a challenge and that is one of the ones we will continue to step up to but it is clearly happening. And look at how the Schedules have exploded over the last dozen years. It goes to show how customers want online comparative shopping possibilities. Therefore, that was an important thing to offer.

One important thing that changed. ... When I left GSA was about a 30 billion dollar flow through agency, now it's 65 billion. That’s a lot of growth. And it is predominantly because of support of DOD and two wars. It goes to show we are – I don’t want to say the tail at the end of the dog – but when government changes, GSA changes and in this case we have really grown.

So where are we going, and given this landscape of change, as I arrive at GSA, that is the question I’m asking how will we be a change agent? How will we be the big engine that will become a reality?

My way of thinking about this goes back to emerging from the mandate, when GSA became more of a member of the market. We began to learn how to play in the market, learned how to spell marketing and how to spell customers. And so we’ve had about a dozen years of practicing being in the market, if you will.

My question is do we want to win in the market? That’s a serious question. Do we want to win your trust, win your confidence, win your partnership and win your business? We are past the notion that it will be given to us. Now we really need to say do we want to win? Think about these kind of scenarios. I believe that winning is a key way to frame this for people of GSA and our industry partners. It's not that I just want to show testosterone, but winning is kind of a big deal. You can think about it in different ways. We are 65 billion now, what if we were 70 billion, 90 billion, 120 billion, 200 billion, how would that change what we need to do? I think that growth would force us to change radically to reassess how to do things.

Think about it in another way. I believe we are about 13 percent of the government spend; what if we were 20 percent? I have specifically added a person to my staff to do business analytics, risk management, and scenario work. Because we need to understand this and be prepared. It could happen. Certainly, from 35 billion to 60 billion happened and we need to be prepared.

There are a number of ways in which this could unfold. One of the obvious ways is, there could be another mandate change. Some people call it cooperative purchasing but it could be that legislation which has been sort of trickling through that would release authority so that our schedules could be available for state and local governments. What would that do for GSA? Ten years ago that was not on the map but it is clearly something that more and more people are paying attention to. We really would be faced with something. We need to be ready for those kinds of ideas. And it could mean a huge impact on small businesses. Small business through us could have access to different kinds of markets and we could do some work to help them consolidate their marketing. We have to have some of these ideas in our heads.

So mandate change is one way that we might be growing. Another way we could grow is, again, market changes. Veterans Administration is growing in a lot of ways and perhaps we would be a part of that. Healthcare and healthcare information and records are examples within the government that are shifting around and might present us some possibilities.

And, in addition, frankly the government buyer is becoming more demanding. Certainly in the IT world, they are becoming more demanding and more needy. There are new ways and solutions in which we can solve some of those problems. This impacts industry in terms of surfacing what these solutions could be, but that is a shift for us. How is the federal dollar going to be shifting as it's spent?

Those are a couple of scenarios. Some of those are kind of out there. But there is one change that is clearly within the hands of GSA. At the top of my list is that we could win more business by performing better. We could step up our performance. Think up ways in which we could raise trust, reliability, raise creativity, and literally change our own performance and therefore grow.

There are a couple of ways in which we need to change in order to go on this growth scenario. Let me take you through those because it will give you a sense of my agenda and sense of the possibility of the crossroads that GSA is at. The business literature says there are THREE ways to improve your business performance.

The first way is customer intimacy. Our customers in this embedded mission that we're in -- our customers are our life's blood. Our mission is to help them with their mission. Our mission requires us to deeply understand and resonate with our customers. You can’t do this kind of work being over here. Intimacy is kind of like this, we gotta be together. Intimacy is a challenge to strengthen that and improve our performance and seed growth.

Lucky for us the Obama Administration has issued a challenge to GSA that will galvanize our customer intimacy skills. Hang with me. ... I know I sound like a management book. There are a couple of pieces to it, but the big piece and the piece you all care about is transparency. It is in transparency when you are right there with your customers and you know each other better.

I think of GSA as the membrane between industry and government. The membrane between government and solutions. That membrane needs to be healthy, it needs to be porous so that nutrients and oxygen can pour through it. It needs to be flexible. It's not dry and it won’t crack. If that membrane is healthy and transparency is healthy, then we can all move forward and have a much more intimate and well-established relationship with customers.

There are a couple of ways we are undertaking this already and you have heard of some of them. Let me give you some examples: GSA is a  particularly focused organizationally on assuring a more transparent, collaborative, and participatory government. Dave McClure, whom you will hear in a little bit, is one of the people who joined the GSA team, and he heads a section of the organization currently called Office of Citizen Services and is the place that the transparency mandate is placed. It is that office that is in charge of the innovation agenda around transparency, tools, new media tools, social networking tools. Enabling the government to be more transparent, and we are riding the forefront of transparency.

Also there is Better Buy, which is sort of a coalition project between National Academy of Public Administration, American Council for Technology, Industry Advisory Council and us and is using the new media tools to do some research to collect ideas to improve our acquisition process. Some are demo projects allowing us to use new tools to do more visible and robust conversations with our partners.

President Obama issued the Open Government Directive, a mandate that agencies have more meaningful ways to interact with citizens. So how do they do that? GSA gave 23 federal agencies the necessary online tools, at no cost, with all policy clearances, in 57 days to engage with the public. We were able to insert, fairly easily, into a number of agencies the capacity to step up to this mandate. We are really delighted with that. We are using a solution idea dialogue tool that simplified things for everyone. That is a healthy membrane. That is a "voila" example.

So, we can work hard at customer intimacy and we have some real levers and some outside interests to help us take on customer intimacy in a new way besides customer satisfaction surveys. You know what I mean? We need to step up the game here. I think we’re on the road to that.

Another way we can dramatically enhance performance is through innovation. Customers want timely, cutting edge solutions. And they don’t want solutions that were relevant in the 1990s or 2009. Being up to date is not enough we need to be innovative. I think innovation is the key to progress, to continuous improvement, and to better performance. And there shoots the formula. If we perform better, we will gain business and we will grow.

GSA, I want to be real clear, is an exciting place to be right now because as we face this notion of innovation, we are standing on a really strong bedrock of experience. The GSA I’ve known in the past has stood tall behind some very innovative programs. It is in our DNA. The Design Excellence Program in the Public Building Services is an extraordinary example of innovation, where we stepped away from those cinder block federal buildings of the 70s and began to be the industry leader of design and the use of sustainable energy conservation techniques. A deep example to demonstrate to you, as you well know, that GSA does know what it means to be innovative and takes great pride in it.

The GSA Schedules Program, as I mentioned earlier, was a tremendously innovative idea that lead the way in the 90s and has served us well. It shows that there are many ways that we should continue to think about innovating to reach customers, so they can make smart shopping examples.

Seatbelts are another example that goes way back. To prove it's in our DNA and not just a few examples, GSA was one of the first agencies to embrace seatbelts before they were cool.

And in the 1990s, I’m proud to say that we were one of the first agencies to adopt the Internet, and I know that is a bit of stone and chisel, but it was a big deal at the time and Flag Day if you remember. Putting GSA on the Internet with the notion that we cannot help our clients make good choices, if we don’t ourselves know how to use these technologies became an important notion.

Innovation is a way we can up our game, but innovation creates risks. And that is what I want to talk about specifically. GSA should be very clearly a partner with our customers because we can absorb some of their risk. It’s a strong business proposition, but it is a genuine one. We are a centralized agency and we are consolidated; and we can help all our stakeholders manage their risk better. In the first instance, GSA has business expertise, so we can better manage risk and give advice about that. We see trends and practices all across the country.

For example, the government wanted to use free media and social networking tools and why not,we should have been jumping on things like Facebook. GSA, because of its legal expertise, negotiated 33 federal compatible terms of service with third party new media providers and opened up the social networking tools. I think the numbers are to- date: we have 85 government YouTube channels and 80 government Facebook pages and still counting. This was an important way in which we could bring our legal advice to negotiate one set and not have each individual agency have to do that.

The second way we can play in the customer's risk sandbox is because we have broad shoulders. We are big and our broad shoulders allow us to take risks in ways that other agencies simply can’t. We have reached across the country, across climates, time zones and across all kinds of industries. We can try various green roof technologies. We can see if the plates in the road that the trucks bounce over at San Ysidro Land Port of Entry really do generate enough electricity to run border stations. We can support the Denver EPA regional office in going for LEED gold so that it can then spread that standard across all other regional offices. We can help take that risk. We are happy to do that and it's important. The clincher is, we have an arena to demonstrate innovation like no other. 

If NASA had the moon shot and DARPA had the Internet, we have sustainability and open government. As Commissioner Peck of Public Buildings Service says, we can be a proving ground. GSA has engaged in sustainable efforts long before it became a part of the daily dialogue. Sustainability is also in our genetics. It goes to our tradition of historic restoration. We believe and understand the values of reuse and re-engaging in materials and techniques that should be carried through in a cradle-to-cradle way. We understand this in our real estate side and it's one of those notions that I would like to have visit all of our consuming side. We also have the green aisle and Multiple Award Schedules. We’ve incorporated the high standards in our buildings with photovoltaics, we have those cloud-like forms that are constructed by sail makers and hang over atriums that filter lights. We do things with dual flush toilets and waterless urinals and all kinds of things. GSA is not afraid of anything. Sustainable ideas have been in our practices and we will continue to march forward with that. Clearly, the Recovery Act gave us a big boost on that. We will continue to promote green building techniques. We are also about to deliver a greenhouse gas tracking and management tool. We will pre-populate it with data that we have for agencies and we will make this available to agencies so that they can do their reporting against the executive order, and probably the reporting will go to the Department of Energy, but our tools will help that happen. And finally we will be delivering a lot of effort toward greening the supply chain further than just the green aisle.

Transparency is also very important. Where sustainability is a clear path to innovation that we already know a lot about, transparency is a bit trickier. The technologies we have available now are going to boost us along. This is where I have to reveal my bias. When I was the Culture VP of Computer Sciences Corp., my unit was around building collaboration. We latched on to a couple of tools that were about collective intelligence and this is what I’m bringing to the table at GSA in terms of my experience. I’m a user and not an IT person. I am somebody who sees the value of it and has worked around these and it’s the kind of thing I’m excited having GSA involved in. Collective intelligence tools are not divergent brainstorming tools. You know, blogs are about everybody throwing up their ideas and you just get more ideas and more and more ideas. And there are other bulletin board processes and people can vote on them and maybe have a sort of social scale so you can figure out which ones are the most popular. Those are called diverging events, and you end up with a cast of characters or a huge load of ideas.

What I’m talking about in collective intelligence is converging events; think more about Wikipedia, where you have an opportunity for everyone to see and watch and contribute, but there are review boards and you have governing structures in ways that you are able to focus on converging solutions. This is a very important new concept in terms of people who are beginning to use the techniques and I am keen on seeing how we can use our collective intelligence

The third way that GSA can boost its performance is simply through operational excellence. We have a tremendous history of get 'er done. We are a big operational organization and I think this is where we can talk about transformation.

I am a recovering transformation person. I started my career in the total quality worlds. We were taking an engine line of diesel engines and shifting it from being a push process – where you just line-set blocks as fast as you can and hope that there was not stuff in the way. So, you end up with inventory all over the place, which is the Japanese brilliant idea of you only ship one engine to a customer and then you have an empty spot and then you move the next engine into it. If there isn’t an engine to move into it, you say whoops, everybody swarms and fixes the problem and you stop the engine line until that gets fixed. And you don’t have all this waste and spare parts, and scrap lying around. It’s a pull method. Total quality was the first major pull revolution, total safety then stepped in and people had a completely safe work environment of no injuries.

Then we went on to a pull technique using zero footprint. What better way to think about what the customers want in a way that re-engineers everything you do. This is transformation. It is not simply a manufacturing concept. It is a concept that can be adopted by service organizations. The best example I have of this is a bit of an urban legend. One of the major military services human resources department -- this is kind of a collection of stories swished together to make the point. They decided they wanted to re-engineer all their processes and their pull metric for doing what was the perfect bereavement call. Where else can you find the galvanizing force to change your bureaucracy, your training, scheduling, timing, your people choices but in a pull metric like that.

At GSA, I intend to introduce this notion of a pull metric and try to figure out how we can best go about transformation, where we are customer facing. We are reengineering and reverse engineering our processes to fit that and therefore increasing our ability to serve our customers every time they demand. That notion of a pull metric is about transforming the workplace with evidence and with customer pull. Transforming an environment like that is synonymous to transforming the talent in the organization.

The genius of this pull metric is because its based on evidence and collaborative processes, and based on genuine customer pull. This is so important to me as a manager, and an educator, and a steward of the federal worker, that we need to use this as a lever for increasing the skill base and the professionalism of the workforce. In some respects, I think about this as the acquisition workforce, but it certainly reaches broader than that.  But I think it is by changing our systems, our culture, our processes, and our tools that we can truly help the talent of these organizations improve. Customer facing thinking can pull them forward. I believe in the efficiency of work. The work you do should be the way you change and that is the philosophy that I will be going about at GSA – investing in people, not just in training programs, but in changing the work they're doing so that they can be enlivened by that.

In closing, I believe the future in winning is with you and for you. And what does it mean to you. Our customers will win as we deliver on their missions. They will be boosted by a GSA that runs innovation, technology and deep understanding of the customer and a profile of shared risk. Our industry partners will also win as we encourage their best ideas, your best ideas and streamline our processes and make better the business of government. I’d like to talk about how that plays out for you.

I ask our customers to be ever more clear about your needs. Don’t hesitate to speak honestly and ask for a range of options and challenge us to be the big engine that will.

To our industry partners, I also challenge you to be clear about your needs, don’t hesitate to speak honestly, and ask for a range of options and challenge us to be the big engine that will.