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Johnson Kicks Off New Era at GSA

As prepared for delivery.

Remarks by
Martha N. Johnson
U.S. General Services Administration
GSA Town Hall
February 16, 2010

It is good to be home.


Before I begin formal remarks, I want to say that this is not MY day. This is GSA’s day. And to that end, I want us all to know how GSA is represented in this room. This might feel a bit hokey, but bear with me.

If you have been with GSA between 0 and 3 years, please stand.

These are the newbies. These are the people we all need to learn to know.

If you have been with GSA between 3 and 9 years, please stand.

You are the people whom I don’t know. And you don’t know me. So we will have fun getting acquainted.

If you have been with GSA between 9 and 20 years, please stand.

You are the smart and experienced ones. Give us your knowledge.

If you have been with GSA over 20 years, please stand.

You are the wise ones. Give us your wisdom.

Thank you. I believe it is in community that we become strong. We are surrounded by great colleagues at GSA and they make us better.

But, we are also surrounded by other communities and today I have some of my extended community here and I would like to introduce them.

First, my husband, Steve, who is my rock, my counselor, and much more. You should know that in the summer of 1962, he worked as a typist in the Denver Federal Center for GSA. He typed checks.

Next, my father, the Reverend Theodore Nace. He has a passion for justice and has always been a tremendous supporter of women in leadership and society. I wouldn’t be here without him.

I also want to acknowledge my mother, Lovina, who died in September. I was able to be with her at the end. She is with us now. I know because of the choir. She was a choir director – often directing my dad who sang in the bass section. She is also here for sure because I can hear her voice correcting my grammar!

And then there is my community: there are people here from my church, from my days at Oberlin College, in China, at Yale University, at Cummins Engine Company, in my executive search work, at the Clinton Gore Transition and White House, at the Commerce Department, at Touchstone, at Touchstone-SRA, at Computer Sciences Corporation, and finally at the Obama Biden Transition and White House. My whole resume in front of me. Yikes. And thank you for coming.


It is a great honor to have been asked to serve GSA as your Administrator by President Barack Obama. Joining his administration gives me great pride. His leadership, tone, and agenda inspire and teach me. As I step into the role, I hope to do the job effectively and from the bottom of my heart. I thank the president for this opportunity.

I would also like to take this moment to thank Paul Prouty, who has served you as the GSA Administrator for the last year. Paul has brought energy and humor to the office. He has been a voice for the regional perspective. He has tried new things and stirred the pot. I salute his courage and his service. Thank you, Paul.

In the early 1990’s a simple notion was floated by two guys, Fred and Mike. Actually, Fred Treacy and Mike Wiersema. They explained that great organizations are great because they excel at one of three things: The first is innovation. Take Google or Apple as archetypes. Both are wildly and consistently innovative. They take risks. They are curious. They like change. And they’ve built their business models and reputations on that.

The second is customer intimacy – being astonishingly in tune with the customer – which brings to mind great service companies like Nordstrom's.

And the third is operational excellence, which is all about getting results, getting problems solved, and getting it done. Think Fed Ex. Think Wal-Mart.

Over the last 15 years, their theory has morphed. It is now argued that, frankly, being good at one of these three isn’t quite enough. A great organization must be all three: Innovative. Intimate with customers. Operationally excellent.

So, where does that put GSA?

For six decades we have been a huge operational machine, in the business of supplying to and housing the federal government. There isn’t a corner of the government that we haven’t touched – from serving the war fighter in Afghanistan, equipping the scientists measuring climate change, assuring that judges in courthouses have a venue that enhances justice, supporting our former President, housing the members of Congress in their home districts, and supplying state and local governments in times of disaster. The Executive, the legislative, the judicial, state, and local.

GSA is unique in its operational breadth. We have operated across an entire swathe of our society.

So, as I’ve been preparing to join GSA, I’ve been thinking hard about how GSA could extend itself, deepen our operational performance, and also become better known for innovation and for customer intimacy.

Enter President Obama.

And he says, “Looks to me as if GSA is full of great folks, serious professionals. We saw them do a fine job on Transition. And, you know what? That gives me the idea that they can be trusted with more.”

And he has done just that. He has handed us an extraordinary agenda, which – voila – challenges us on those three dimensions I was just speaking about: to be great at innovation, intimate with our customers, and awesome at getting results. Let me take you through that.

First is the sustainability of our environment. Under the Recovery Act, GSA has an immediate task of boosting the efficiency and environmental impact of our buildings and vehicle fleet. But, environmental sustainability represents an even deeper obligation. With GSA’s huge reach, we can and should – and must – focus on helping the government dramatically reduce its environmental footprint. This will require tremendous innovation, risk taking, and change. We will start with ourselves, tune in to innovative possibilities, use our influence in markets, and more.

Second is transparency. President Obama’s insistence on open government is about building our nation’s democratic muscles. Hoarding and hiding information prevents citizens and civil servants from understanding and participating in the public process effectively. It is the exact opposite of intimacy. Of citizen intimacy. We at GSA can help change that. We can make the information more available, as a first step. And we can do much more. We can, and will, take advantage of emerging technologies for sorting, sharing, networking, collective intelligence, and using that information. Our goal is nothing short of a nation that relies not on select data and statistical boxing matches, but on accurate evidence that supports knowledge and wisdom.

And the third arena of work towards which the president has steered us is about taking our performance to the next level. In the 1990s, the Clinger Cohen Act gave us a gift. It pushed GSA out of being the mandated company store for the government. At the time, it was a shock. Many of you probably remember that over 5,000 people took the buy-out in the wake of our tremendous realignment. But it has helped us grow up and made it necessary for GSA to play in the competitive arena and the real market. Our challenge now is to WIN in that market. Why should other agencies divert resources from their core missions in order to set up procurement and contracting staffs? I was asked exactly that question in my Senate hearings. Why indeed! We have tremendous skill, this is our core capacity – delivering solutions – and we should be hands down the best.

These three challenges from President Obama are nothing short of inspiring. As a government agency we are mission oriented. And what a mission these three represent. In sustainability, we are called upon to be innovative stewards of our natural world. In transparency, we are called upon to be the enablers of a deep and feisty intimacy between the government and its citizens. Finally, we are called upon to shine as talented, committed public servants, exercising our craft of delivering solutions and stretching to the outer limits of our potential.

GSA, I am deeply honored to be stepping into the position of leading you in these challenges. But it is our GSA community of which each of you is a precious part that will get the job done. All of us work under the noble banner of civil servant. We are in service to our world, our country, our president, and each other. Let us do this with integrity and courage, and with the joy that comes from doing great work together.

My thanks to my family, my friends, my colleagues, and my president.

Now, let’s get to work!

Last Reviewed: 2017-08-13