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Johnson Addresses Coalition Partnership Dinner

As prepared for delivery

Remarks by
Martha N. Johnson
U.S. General Services Administration
2010 GSA Expo - Coalition for Government Procurement Partnership Dinner
Orlando, FL
May 5, 2010

Thank you to Larry Allen for your kind introduction. I am glad to be back at Expo and glad to see the innovation and enthusiasm of our industry partners.

I have been lucky to enter government at critical junctures. My internship in 1971 was on the heels of landing a man on the moon. The government through the good work of NASA had secured the U.S. in a scientific leadership position. In 1992 when I joined the Clinton White House the society was about to explode with the possibilities of a worldwide Internet and global positioning systems. The government through the good work of DARPA had again spurred society forward.

It is happening again. President Obama has recognized the inflection point facing our society and I quote him:

“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 will 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… 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.“

His Executive Order 13514 on October 9 is explicit:

"As the largest consumer of energy in the U.S. economy, the federal government can and should lead by example when it comes to creating innovative ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase energy efficiency, conserve water, reduce waste, and use environmentally-responsible products and technologies."

This is the way I see it:

The federal government occupies nearly 500,000 buildings, operates more than 600,000 vehicles, and purchases more than $500 billion per year in goods and services.

GSA plays a prominent role in that, managing over 350 million square feet of space, operating a third of those vehicles, and overseeing a vast flow of goods and services via our schedules program, contracts, credit cards, travel services and more.

GSA, therefore, is one of a handful of fulcrums upon which we can significantly leverage our government’s environmental footprint. Our reach is big and so our work should not be limited to a reduction here, some efficiencies there, and a stall until someone else tries to solve the problem. Our reach is also deep. GSA is embedded everywhere. “The government R us.” GSA’s mission is to offer our expertise to agencies so they can meet their missions. This is why President Obama named GSA a key member of his Green team- alongside the Dept of Energy and the Council on Environmental Quality

With this reality and responsibility, there is no choice. GSA has to embrace a zero environmental footprint goal. We should set our sites on eliminating the impact of the federal government on our natural environment. The words were “eliminate” not “limit.” I’m not kidding. Zero Footprint.

This is our moon shot. Yes, it is an unbelievable, wild, magnificent, over the top goal. It has to be. After all, what if NASA had set its sites merely on getting a rocket beyond the reach of earth’s gravity? What if NASA had set its sites on merely getting people into an orbit around the earth? I believe with those goals NASA would have devolved to yet another program agency, attracting good but not brilliant talent, carefully choosing work that could be achieved, and pushing out predictable, next step events that would not have been called Apollo or Mercury but something like The Next Tier or A Step Upward. We would not have gotten to the moon.

Zero footprint is our moon shot. Zero footprint will demand that we work harder than we have ever worked before. We will have to find innovative ideas like never before, and take risks that are absolutely not within our current comfort range. A zero environmental footprint goal will galvanize the workforce and our partners and attract the best of the next generation’s smart, idealistic and determined talent. A zero footprint goal will pull change through our systems, ratchet our priorities away from petting process and towards solving society’s real needs. A zero footprint goal will electrify our confidence in our future.

Will we get there?

That is actually the wrong question. No one can answer that. No one can read the future. I prefer to answer the question, “Can we get there?” and to that I answer as does our President, “Yes, we can.” This challenge is about technology, of course, and the United States is a leader in innovative and emerging technologies. But, this challenge is much more. It is about vision, will power, determination, and a robust and shared culture of hope and drive. For that we have a powerful hand to play. Americans know about coming together, with our extraordinary diversity of ideas and approaches and pooling our capabilities. We know how to converge on solutions – that is our national culture, built off our deep roots as a democratic and open society.

So, what’s next for the government? For industry?

First, we have the enormous gift of powerful environmental systems thinkers who have been creating strategic platforms for us. At GSA we are, this month, reading the powerful book, Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart which gives us a radical new philosophy away from our current presumptions about designed in obsolescence and a throw-away culture. We have much to learn and we are engaged in that discussion right now. We trust you are also getting as smart as possible about the big directional sustainability winds.

Second, luckily, we at GSA have been at this awhile and we already know a lot about what works and what doesn’t in the evolving efforts at environmental management. For example, during late 1970s energy crisis, GSA pressed to decrease federal building energy usage. Today, the portfolio operates on 22 percent less energy than comparable private sector buildings. We already know a lot and this should make it easier to lean forward towards a zero footprint goal. We expect to continue to generate best practices, and next practices, and share them broadly…and we hope you are doing the same. We should avoid inventing the wheel that is already known.

Third, we must reinvent the notion of risk taking. A zero footprint goal won’t be reached without a significant and perhaps spectacular trail of successes and failure. Secretary Chu at a Cabinet meeting last week discussed exactly this with relationship to the ARPA-E projects they are funding to encourage new and exciting technologies and science for better energy management. Some of the projects will fail but if we don’t take the risk on a portfolio of efforts, we might miss the real game changing breakthrough in the bunch. In short, sustainability requires us all to assess, choose, and manage risk. It’ll start with a “fail fast” culture in which we try things, try bite sized things, win some quickly, lose some quickly, and learn from mistakes. We must learn to “fail fast” with you, our industry partners. Let’s share more than our best practices. Let’s also share the “let ’em rest” practices. Let’s talk about what didn’t work as well so that we don’t have to reinvent that wheel, too.

Fourth, we are bringing better business thinking into government. While Harry S. Truman created GSA in order to consolidate buying and find lower prices for government purchasing, the 1990’s procurement reform moved us to a new model not of lowest cost but of best value. That is better business thinking.

For years big business has been able to move markets. Look at Walmart and how it decided to stock more organic products on its shelves and tear into excess packaging. Believe you me. That affects their supplier’s behavior, increasing demand for organically grown vegetables and fruit and encouraging suppliers to redesign their packaging. The business acumen to see these shifts, predict these directions, and adjust, is what makes for a vibrant economy.

Similarly, the government can move markets. We’ve always done this, of course. Commercial aviation got off the ground only after federal government authorized the Post Office to begin flying the mail.

But we can and should be more intentional, open, explicit, and creative. Facing the challenges of a zero footprint goal, the government and GSA will be demanding and using ever better business models for predicting, seeding, measuring, innovating, and weaving together markets. Business organizations that are really good at innovation and measurements should be excited about this turn of events.

Fifth, this is about partnership. Cradle to Cradle philosophy is about a connected chain of work which begs for integrated thinking starting with the design stage for a product and working through the full product life cycle. We need to see and share thinking throughout design, production, marketing, using, and ultimate re-productive use of the materials. This approach – this reincarnation philosophy – is much more than, say, strategic sourcing which is already asking for a stepped up partnership link.

I like to think of the movie, Avatar. Think about the construct in the movie that the humanlike characters would toss their braided hair towards their horses or dragons and interweave with the creatures’ manes. We need to lock together with that same intention about joining forces and sending energy and signals back and forth.

Sixth and finally, we are about serving the same customer. The President’s Executive Order is a challenge to all of us. We need to understand the needs of client agencies. GSA has a role to play in helping customers make the right buying decisions. There is nothing worse than trying to figure out what services and solutions to buy especially if the subject is new, evolving, and risky. This we can help with. And you can help us. Customers want cutting-edge solutions but they can’t always be the test bed. GSA can be. We can practice on ourselves, be the proving ground, as Bob Peck describes it. We can take a few for the customer. So can you. We should be able to find ways to share that burden across our many enterprises. We can work on Zero footprint IT, buildings, operations, products, services, travel, and more.

In closing, I ask you to be a partner with us. Work alongside us as we seek to design, innovate, act as a proving ground, measure, and make gains on our goal. Challenge us with ideas, best practices, and failures. And, for heaven’s sake, talk to us. Give us honest and direct feedback. We promise to listen carefully.

If our customers succeed, GSA succeeds, and we ALL succeed. Sustainability is the way of our future. We are not just shooting for the moon … we’re shooting for a planet … a sustainable planet called planet Earth. How could we go for anything less?

Thank you very much and enjoy the rest of your evening and your time here at Expo.

Last Reviewed: 2017-08-13