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Johnson Hails GSA Partnership with the United States Coast Guard

Condensed Remarks

Remarks by
Martha N. Johnson
Administrator
U.S. General Services Administration
United States Coast Guard Innovation Expo
Tampa, Fla.
November 3, 2010 

Thank you, Vice Admiral [Sally] Brice-O’Hara, for that generous introduction. I am thrilled to be here in Tampa with the United States Coast Guard. At GSA, we think of you as one of our most valued customers. We think of our federal clients as customers, and we are very pleased to be in service to you as you are in service to our great nation. 

We support agencies, and those agencies support the government, and the government supports this country. It is in that value chain that we take very seriously our commitment to you to make you as highly supported and functional as possible. 

Woven through my background is a set of experiences in transforming large organizations, and it is that, that I will be referring to as we talk this morning because transformation and innovation are on our minds. Changing large organizations – and the large networks that connect these large organizations – in a really progressive way is a big challenge. 

Early in my career, I had the opportunity to work at Cummins Engine Co. The reason I point that out is because I was there when Cummins was making the huge switch from traditional manufacturing to a total-quality manufacturing mindset. Changing the paradigm at Cummins really changed our notions about how you discipline and incorporate innovation throughout your operations. 

Let me give you a bit of my government story. The Clinger-Cohen Act shifted GSA from the company store to your optional supplier. For GSA, this was very, very significant. We were no longer the obvious and only choice; government agencies had other options. We had to learn to spell “marketing,” we had to decide if we could use that word in the government, and we had to deeply look at how we listen to our customers and how we could keep them. 

Right now, we manage some 350 million square feet of buildings. We handle about a third of the federal fleet, a large amount of the federal spend, and help manage the river of consumption of the federal government. We are also in charge of a tremendous amount of disposal of both real property and personal property. We help dispose of thousands of computers a week. Because of this dual procurement and disposal role, we see and help manage the entire life cycle of the consumption of the government. 

With the Coast Guard, we are engaged in a special moment, since we are building you a new headquarters in Washington. I saw the site yesterday [Nov. 2] as I flew out of Washington, and I’m pleased to say that we can now see construction where there used to be a giant hole. The last time I saw it, I learned that they were pulling trucks full of dirt out of the site at a rate of one every 37 seconds. It’s a huge project, and we’re seeing terrific progress. 

The new headquarters will be 1.2 million square feet, and one of the great features is that we have been able to apply $450 million of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to this construction. At this point, there are 650 construction workers on site. And, we are fueling small businesses in the area with about $224 million in subcontracts. The Recovery Act has been a tremendous and exciting moment for us in our stewardship of our buildings and in making them more modern and sustainable. I’ll tell you more about this in a moment.

The last nine months have been joyous for me. It is a true pleasure to serve President [Barack] Obama in this role at GSA. In my career, I have worked for a lot of very exciting and competent executives in the private sector and under [then GSA Administrator] Dave Barram in the 1990s. I have to say that President Obama is a particularly exciting executive to work for because he understands us as a strategic asset. There are not a lot of politicians that understand things like strategic assets and business plans and directions and strategy, but he does. This makes it a tremendous moment for GSA because he is sending us directives and steering us so that we can be a true point of leverage for the federal government. This sets us up to do some very interesting things.

I’m going to talk about sustainability and open government. These are important to the Coast Guard’s innovation agenda, and they are levers for us in our own innovation agenda. 

In terms of sustainability, at GSA, we have declared a goal of achieving a zero environmental footprint – ZEF. We’ve done this because we realize that as a lever for the federal government, the government cannot truly approach the sustainability agenda unless GSA is out there ahead leading the way and pulsing the opportunities. 

The thing about ZEF is that it’s like the famous moonshot. When President [John F.] Kennedy said that we would put a person on the moon and bring him safely back to earth, he set a goal for the country that we didn’t yet know how to achieve. I often say that, similarly, ZEF is GSA’s moonshot. We have set a huge goal for ourselves and our operations, and we do not yet know how to achieve it. 

I think of this as if we’re on the beach and the waves are coming in, but only the foam is touching our toes. We haven’t yet waded into the environmental agenda nearly as much as we will – and we are on the front end – but why not shoot for the moon when setting our targets. Like the moonshot, a big audacious goal like ZEF galvanizes and energizes the entire enterprise. 

ZEF will have a reach that is broader than just an environmental impact. It will also impact our management and innovation at GSA itself. We are going to have to look hard at just about everything that we have done and everything that we do. 

ZEF touches everything we do: the products and services, as well as our building portfolio. Our Public Buildings Service Commissioner Bob Peck has declared our buildings to be green proving grounds. We’re particularly well-positioned for this because we have buildings in every congressional district, at every altitude, and in every climate in the U.S.

We take the idea of being a green proving ground seriously. For example, at the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt building in Portland, Ore., we started a redesign with the idea of having vegetative fins on the outside of the building to help moderate the internal temperature. As the design process went on, however, we realized that it wouldn’t work for various reasons. So we kept the fin idea, and now they will rotate very precisely against the movement of the sun to keep the temperature controlled for the occupants. This is an example of how we had a cool idea, realized it wouldn’t work, reworked it, and moved on.

Failing fast, forward, and fruitfully is another way of saying that we need to take bites, try them out, discard them, and keep moving. We can’t afford to do huge things and make mistakes, so we need to be working at it as we go, and adjusting and shifting. We also have very big shoulders, and we can try things out that some other agencies might not be able to. As a result, we are a bit of a gatekeeper around ideas, and we practice with them and see if they work. 

That brings me briefly to the open government agenda that President Obama has given us. It is very important to him because it is the legislation he forwarded as a senator, and there are three parts to this agenda that I’d like to mention.

The first piece is about transparency. This is about making data and information available to the public in ways that they can use. At GSA we are working hard to develop innovative citizen engagement tools that open government data to the public for its use and analysis. 

The second piece of this agenda is about participation. This is about everyone talking on the big blog in the sky and everybody getting their voices in the room. This is important, but it is fundamentally divergent. This is not a problem-solving capacity; it’s about having your voice heard. 

Problem-solving is much more in place in the third piece of open government: collaboration. Collaboration is the innovative edge of our work right now because it helps us converge on solutions. Collaborative tools have other facets that participatory tools don’t have: governance structures and implicitly understood techniques that allow for the editing and screening of ideas until a solution is reached. Collaboration harnesses the wisdom of the crowds and uses it to solve problems in a rigorous way. 

So the open government mandate is about transparency, diverging opinions, and convergent problem-solving. We are playing with all of this hard at GSA, and we are trying out a number of techniques, searching through social networking tools, and going through the legal issues so that they are available to agencies as they begin to become interested in this kind of work. 

This leads to our innovation agenda, and many people are afraid that innovation will lead to disruption or excessive costs. My thinking here is that we need to interrupt, not disrupt, systems. If we can change a habit here, the whole system adjusts without going off the rails. That is the technique that large transformation really requires.

I also believe in working with the early adopters. My advice is to go with the people who are there, with you, and ready to innovate. It is far easier to build a tipping point instead of waiting for everyone to get onboard.

At GSA, we believe that space, buildings, and workplace matter. Your new headquarters is going to play with space, and you’ll function differently. We know that those differences impact the organizational culture and unfreeze organizations from their habits. 

We also believe in modeling behavior. We are in the middle of a renovation of our headquarters, and when we go back we’re going to bring three times as many people in as are currently there. The space itself is going to set the context for that change.

Innovation is, and must continue to be, part of the Coast Guard’s DNA. You have particularly good positioning around innovation because you have to engage in remedying huge catastrophes: narcotics, human trafficking, the Deepwater Horizon spill, and Hurricane Katrina, just to name a recent few. Think of these as laboratories for innovation. When you are in those arenas of rapid response, you have the opportunity to harvest lessons that you can then institutionalize in the slower moments. 

Finally, let me say that the Coast Guard is a can-do organization. I have a huge amount of respect for the Coast Guard, and I think of you as having the nation’s back. When we step out and step into something, you are there, and you have our back. You define the art of the possible for the nation and for the government. You have the skill, the responsiveness, the culture, the professionalism, and the leadership that is about being there in crises and having the nation’s back and figuring out what we can do to move forward. 

It’s no surprise that the nation needs you and needs your spirit of innovation. What I hope and trust is that you take that spirit home with you and have that same art of the possible in your DNA as you run the Coast Guard itself. The inside of your organization and how you function makes you credible and vital to the nation, and that is what needs to be nurtured. 

Innovation is what this week is about for you: reviewing, recommitting, and re-internalizing innovation as an important part of who you are so that you can share that with the nation. 

Thank you for your service and for your performance. It’s a joy to have you as one of our customers, and we look forward to continuing to serve you well.