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Administrator Johnson Speaks to Business Community in Support of Greenhouse Gas Transparency.

Condensed Remarks

Remarks by
Martha N. Johnson
U.S. General Services Administration
Carbon Disclosure Project Global Forum
New York City
September 20, 2010

Good morning, everyone. I'm delighted to be here at the Carbon Disclosure Project's 2010 Project Global Forum. This is an important conversation, and I'm glad to listen to Ms. [Christiana] Figueres' comments about the international perspective. Her presence here and the backdrop of the U.N. General Assembly meeting right now underline the international importance of this issue.

I am here to speak about the role of the U.S. government and our dynamic public- and private-sector partnerships. We all have to work together to propel us forward in a sustainable economy, and I want to illuminate the role that the U.S. General Services Administration plays in this.

GSA is the nation's landlord, and we are one of the premier procurement levers in the government. Let me give you a sense of that size because it is an important one for us to take seriously and intentionally rather than just abstractly.

The federal government occupies 500,000 buildings, we operate over 600,000 vehicles, and we purchase $500 billion in goods, systems, and services each year. GSA plays a large role in this. There are other big entities, like the Department of Defense, the Postal Service, and the prison systems. But we handle about 350 million square feet of buildings, we operate about a third of that vehicle fleet, and we oversee a vast amount of the flow of goods and services through our schedules program, our credit cards, our travel services, and the like. This river of consumption can be considered as high as $90 billion a year.

I will also point out that we are in a unique position in that we have a tremendous design function in our building system and in our contracting processes. We do a lot of design work. We also have two large organizations that are in charge of disposal. We dispose of real assets, and we dispose of so-called personal assets, such as the space shuttle. You can appreciate that we actually have a kind of end-to-end window on procurement, acquisition, consumption, and disposal in the federal system.

We have huge leverage. Harry S. Truman, when he founded us over 60 years ago, wanted us to consolidate purchases. Centralized purchasing was a great idea, and it made a lot of sense. So we have always been in the business of trying to work on low prices. We also qualify industry partners, and we make and move markets. The question is whether or not we do that intentionally or whether we do that in spite of ourselves. It is my hope that we will become even more intentional because in the world of sustainability, this is a huge role that we have and a huge contribution we can make: how to make and move the right markets.

President Barack Obama is a wonderful boss. I'll tell you why he's a wonderful boss: because he is a superb executive. He understands GSA as a strategic asset, both to his government and to the nation. This is not necessarily the perspective presidents hold. We tend to be kind of in the back room or forgotten. But in this case, I am thrilled to say we have a role, and it's because the White House understands us as a strategic asset.

There are two things I want to point out about this. There are a number of requests that have come from the White House about our engagement, but there are two that are very important to this subject of the moment. The first is open government. When the president was a senator, he had one significant piece of legislation in his short tenure, and it was around transparency. It focused on opening the budget processes so that people could get the data. His commitment to open government is truly phenomenal and almost personal, and he has asked GSA to be a major flag carrier on the issue of open government.

To that end, we have the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, where we develop and implement 21st-century technologies and allow citizens to use them. This engages citizens so that they can see inside the government. There are two pieces to this. First is the obvious transparency piece, and this is what today is about: disclosure. You can't understand what's going on if you can't see the data. With the tools that we make available, we allow citizens to look into the government so that they can grab the data, analyze it, interpret it, and make use of it.

But we go beyond transparency; we are also heavily involved in the world of participation and collaboration. Those are the other two sections of the Open Government Directive that came from the White House. Participation draws from the campaign experiences of inviting people to be part of the social networks, the affinity groups of citizens who are interested in the issues at hand. We are also keen on collaboration, which goes a step further and is not just talking to the big bulletin board in the sky but actually focuses the conversation toward solving a problem.

We are making social media tools available to the government so that we can harness the wisdom of the crowds, so that we can understand the vast pool of knowledge that we need to tap, and so that we can encourage engagement. It’s through engagement that we will be able to speak to the government as citizens and that we can encourage the government to move.

I want to lay that groundwork because it is through that engagement that all of this connects to sustainability. Through transparency, participation, and collaboration we can share best practices. We can create affinity groups. We can build energy and relationships. We can build a sense of community. All of those are critical for moving the government on the sustainability agenda.

I will now move to what President Obama has handed us, which is a fairly dramatic and exacting request with respect to how the government functions sustainably. GSA is in the forefront.

Let me explain. GSA is like a membrane, if you will. On one side, you have industry; and on the other side, you have government, and we're right in the middle. It needs to be porous; it needs to be healthy; it cannot be brittle; it cannot be dry. It needs to encourage conversation, hence the openness, and it needs to be vital and exactly centered between the two. This is, of course, always a balance. It's always a balance, and we take this very seriously. But we can make, we can interpret, and we can share market messages. We can create coalitions and affinity groups across that membrane. We play an important facilitation role here, as well as some of the other roles. I want you to think about that because I think these are the new models of organizations that we are now beginning to use in the government more and more.

GSA is also already in the sustainability game. In the 1970s, there was a significant oil crisis, for those of you who can remember it. I had to park my first car for a month because I couldn't get any gas. We had a lot of pressure on the government to become more sustainable – though that wasn't the word of the day – and GSA got in action. As a result, we did things in our buildings that mean that now the federal inventory that we manage functions 22 percent more efficiently than comparable buildings in the private sector. We're proud of that. GSA does not toot its horn very loudly, but it is quite an innovator, and we have some good stories about that.

The administration is keen on the sustainability agenda, and the president links this to his economic agenda. He understands that a sustainable economy is the future. The present is the elbow; it’s the turning point; it’s the leverage. This is the fulcrum for where the United States economy can gain new health and new innovation. Green-collar jobs will be the color of the 21st-century economy, and it is in the sustainability arena that we can find the innovation needed to propel that.

Let me quote him so I say it correctly. The president has said, "Countries on every corner of this Earth now recognize that energy supplies are growing scarcer, energy demands are growing larger, and rising energy use imperils the planet we leave to future generations. And that's why the world is now engaged in a peaceful competition to determine the technologies that will power the 21st century.” He continues, “The nation that wins this competition will be the nation that leads the global economy. I am convinced of that and I want America to be that nation." The president is serious. He wants us to keep moving.

Sustainability makes good economic sense. It makes good environmental sense, and it makes good security sense. I want to tell you what it does for the government itself as an entity, as one of the ways in which it impacts our overall economy.

The interesting thing about sustainability is it's a long word that means "no waste." And I have to say, as a government official, all I hear about is how we're wasting the taxpayers' dollars. Sustainability is about no waste. If we can genuinely embrace that, we can move down the curve of what the taxpayers want us to do. They want us to use their money responsibly. It is about wringing out our inefficiencies, and you know bureaucracy is full of inefficiencies. This is the ultimate in business process re-engineering.

Sustainability also sets us up for innovation and creativity. It is not just about efficiency.

Sustainability also anticipates the future and allows us – in fact, encourages us – to give up our old habits. We all know the hardest thing about changing organizations is breaking habits. We all know the hardest thing about going on a diet is breaking habits. This is about breaking habits. This is the kind of thing that can galvanize organizations into an entirely different way of functioning. As was mentioned earlier, it attracts top talent. Granted, the economy is sluggish. However, we had 200 jobs open up in our acquisition services recently; we had 6,000 applicants. I believe we are getting extraordinary talent coming in the door because GSA is sustainability-minded.

Companies that embrace a lower [environmental] footprint now will reap the benefits. Countries that seek a sustainable economy and structure will be safer and more prosperous. But the important thing is that they will also be more flexible, more vital, less afraid, and, in other words, more truly sustainable.

How are we doing this at GSA? We are pulling sustainability through the government, through our operations, and into the supply chain. As I said, our membrane positioning is a great business proposition; we're right in the middle of everything.

I took the senior team of GSA – about 150 people – to an off-site field trip, where we visited a company that is aiming for zero environmental impact. We looked at each other, and we said, "Well, why not?" So GSA senior management this spring said, "We want to declare ZEF – zero environmental footprint – as our goal."

The next question is not, "Well, are you doing it next year? What are your plans for July 2015?" The point is that we want something that will jiu-jitsu us forward. It is not enough to say we will lower something. We want to go to zero. It is with that powerful puller – zero environmental footprint – that we can remake ourselves as an organization. And frankly, if we don't do it – if GSA is not ready to try to go down this road with all the guts and willingness that we have – the government can't get there, because we're doing the purchasing for them.

So that is our strategy, pure and simple: ZEF.

Our tools. We have a carbon footprint tool, which is linked to the public-sector protocols. This allows the feds – remember, our customers are the feds across all of the federal government, including the judiciary, the legislative branch, former presidents, and some state and local. So our carbon footprint tool has a rather large reach. The federal government consumes 1.62 quadrillion Btus of energy annually. It's enough to power 40 million homes for one year. We are the largest energy consumer in the United States. It's about time we really watched it. So we are doing that. This tool measures our emissions and identifies reduction opportunities. It's one thing to keep score. It's another thing to improve the game the next time around.

We also have filed a sustainability plan, as has each other major Cabinet agency. This plan is aggressive, and it has just been reviewed and returned to us from the White House. It is a plan to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent over the next decade. But importantly, it helps us position ourselves in all of the various scopes where we are naturally; where our business model is, if you will. We link to the entire government. We are about the workplace solutions for the government. If we want to encourage the government to work virtually, we have to be doing it. We're the ones that help that happen. We are about workplaces.

We also link to industry. Obviously, if we want to encourage industry to shift, we can send those signals. It doesn't have to be regulatory. But it can be signals about what we will qualify as buying smart.

In the 1990s, the Klinger-Cohen Act took GSA from being just low-price consumer to being a high-value consumer. That has changed our culture over the last 12 years; we are now not just looking at the box at the bottom that compares the two dollar items on the two contract submissions. It compares quality and value. Those are issues that are part of the sustainability work. We are linking to industry and talking about how and what you are doing, not just what you are charging the government.

In short, we are both in the locker room and on the field. We have policy, and we stand in the middle of the procurement cycle. So as we watch it move, we can step back and say, "This is what we recommend you pay attention to." That is an important back-and-forth. It is not always the norm in the government. Normally, policy is here, and programs are here. We are right in the cycle, back and forth, between the locker room and the playing field, teaching ourselves, learning from you, and putting that into guidance and policies across the government.

Let me just turn to our buildings briefly. [GSA Public Buildings Service] Commissioner Bob Peck likes to call the Public Buildings Service a green proving ground, and it is an attitude that is an important one. We are not just about putting up buildings. We are about proving technologies and experimenting, and the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act underwrote an enormous number of projects in this arena.

I have spent a lot of time in the last couple of months standing on roofs and pointing at solar panels because we are testing all kinds of solar panels, showing the differences, where they should be used, which kind should be used, et cetera. We have buildings in every congressional district, which means we have buildings in every landscape, every high altitude, and every climate. So we can really comment on which solar panels make sense. We, therefore, have the opportunity through the Recovery Act to use a fair amount of money to innovate. I think this will yield some interesting ideas as we test and play with creative techniques.

We also have the commitment in our sustainability plan to reduce the energy use of federal buildings by a third over the next 10 years. We will increase renewable energy purchases – another thing that we do – to 30 percent of our annual consumption.

Now, we also impact the supply chain. We are trumpeting Section 13 of President Obama's Executive Order 13514. We are incentivizing federal suppliers to complete their greenhouse gas (GHG) inventories. We want the government purchasers to be considering those GHG emissions when they are making their decisions.

But we are not limiting this to large corporations. We are highly committed to small businesses because they are the engine of the future economy. We are setting our high-priority performance goal around partnering with small businesses and getting them also to identify their GHG footprints. So between large and small suppliers, we are hoping to level the playing field and encourage all of industry to be playing in this world of disclosure of carbon and GHG emissions in a way that can move us all.

What do we need from you? We believe in the power of collaboration. We join you – NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], academia, industry, and government – and we must learn together. Yesterday, I was at Chincoteague Island on the Atlantic Ocean, and I think as you stand and look out at the ocean, you have to admit that on sustainability, we're kind of on the beach, and we're kind of at that place where the foam is just about reaching our toes. We have a long way to get into this ocean.

We have a lot of learning to do. We have a tremendous amount of collaborating that needs to happen, a lot of conversation. This kind of work is getting our feet a little bit wet, and that’s great. But we do have a long way to go, and collaboration is of the essence. We need to move quickly, and we need to manage risk. GSA has huge shoulders, and we can shoulder a lot of risk around innovation. We can fail a little bit if we fail fast and fail forward and fail fruitfully. And if we can tell that story so the media can hear it, well, it benefits us all because others can learn.

All of this collaboration can also help us stay committed because linking arms is important in this process. We believe in transparency, and we would like to join you in the fact that with a middle name like "Disclosure," we also believe in disclosing a great amount. We will commit to actively using the knowledge that is surfacing as we disclose, and we hope that you will also continue to move onward. We also need to hold each other accountable, keep the conversation honest, and share the best ideas in respectful and productive conversations.

In short, I want to let you know that government is moving. We are eager to be a part of this huge endeavor. We understand our position better than ever. We are committed to making a difference, and we won't disappoint you.

Thank you very, very much.

Last Reviewed: 2017-08-13