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Johnson Says Collaboration Key to Environmental Goals

Condensed remarks

Remarks by
Martha N. Johnson
U.S. General Services Administration
Management of Change Conference
Philadelphia, PA
May 24, 2010

I want to start with a story. It’s a story about a slam, S-L-A-M. It doesn’t stand for anything; It just means “slam”. We capitalize it because it’s important. This is a GSA story, and it leads into some of the concepts I want to share.

A slam is effectively a highly participative, fast, getting together of a community of people to solve a problem. I’ve only been at GSA since February. So, this is going into my fourth month. After about a month and a half, maybe two, Casey Coleman, GSA’s CIO, came in for her weekly meeting with me.

IT modernization is our large project, and we are beginning to fix some things: voice-over IP, single sign-on, and all related things. And so she was showing me the IT modernization plan.

There were 2011s on that list. We looked at each other and we said, "You know, this isn’t fast enough." So, in the course of the next half hour, we put together the rubric of a slam. We just named it right there. The idea was we needed to slam a group of people together to get it done. That’s where the word came from.

It was modeled after something we did at GSA in the 1990s, when I was Chief of Staff. We had a huge problem in leasing. We took all our leasing specialists across the Public Buildings Service, and we took the Inspector General, the Office of the Chief Financial Office, the Human Resources head and the General Counsel, and we locked them in a room in the Conrad Hilton in Chicago for three days, we said, “Fix it. Just fix it. Here’s your panel of experts. You need HR. You need contracts. You need IG support. Don’t go moaning and groaning about the fact that the IG won’t let you, or HR won’t let you. They’re here. Ask them to get it done.” This time we said, “Let’s get it done by July Fourth.” There are four things we need to do. July Fourth is a good time to get it done: freedom from these problems; independence from these problems. July Fourth. Four things. It just felt right.

So that was our model from the 1990s. That is what we were bringing to our thinking about the slam for IT modernization in GSA.

About two weeks later, Casey invited me into a meeting where she had a number of people together, and they were designing the slam meeting. They were organizing and getting the facilitators sorted out: who should come and all that. They said, “Five things; we’re going to do five things.” Can you believe it? We thought four was a lot. There they were. But they were beginning to get energized. People were getting a little bounce in their step. And I thought, "Well, maybe this is going to work."

About 10 days later, we had the slam. We went to a hotel, about 70 people, including labor relations, HR, procurement, the head people across the agency, the lawyers. We kicked it off in the morning. We spent that day sorting through how to get five of our major IT modernization bits of work done by July Fourth. They were done at three o’clock.

We had rules of engagement that said things like, "Have fun. Take off your tie. Get to work." They were all standing up. When you stand you come to a decision more quickly. We’re all putting notes up on the wall. This is not rocket science. It’s just getting everybody in the room, closing the door and saying, ‘Get it done." And so, they were all collecting and getting their ideas up, making their agreements. They cut contracts with each other by the end of the day; little agreements about what would be happening. And from what I can tell, we’re on course. So, by July Fourth, we’re going to get a number of things done.

It was a big deal. I want to tell you the lessons we’ve learned because those are the lessons we need to extrapolate to GSA’s larger agenda and our process of change.

What lessons did we learn? Well, the first lesson is you need leadership alignment. You need the leaders to be connected. They need to be in agreement. They need to know what they are doing. This is not hard. Just get it done. The leaders need to be in agreement. You can’t go forward if they aren’t. So that’s one thing.

The second is you need a goal. I’ve explained about the Fourth of July. Goals can be oppressive. But the thing about having a goal that is a holiday is if you hit the goal, you get a day off. It doesn’t cost the organization anything. It’s like a built-in reward system. So you pick holidays as goals. Be hokey about it. We really are focusing on all the themes around the Fourth of July. It just makes it fun. It bounces the spirit a bit. If you have an emotional push for it, it moves it along.

Now, here are some priorities. I want to talk about fearsome priorities because in the government, we tend to consider everything important. Everything is because, of course, everybody’s watching us, and they’ll find the little Achilles’ heel. One of the things the government needs to do is be much more disciplined about choosing its priorities and then taking them on.

Think about it this way: you have a river, and you’ve got rocks in the river. You can’t move down the river. You’re stuck behind all these rocks, lots of splashing, lots of deep water.
What you do is you choose the fearsome priority. You choose the biggest rock, and you get it out of the river. Why? Because something happens. What happened when the rock left? The water goes down because it isn’t being filled up by the huge rock. The next big rock appears. It sets your priorities for you. It’s pretty easy. Get the big rock out. The next big rock shows up. Then you know what to do next.

I think that this is an easy way instead of having some big, elaborate process for choosing a strategy. You know what you’re big rock is. Choose it, and go for that fearsome priority.

You also need to get engaged with velocity. How can I say this? We need to pulse our systems. We need to pulse our systems so that they really heat up, and we can see what they can do, and we can learn from them. I think about exercising. What you want to do is get your heart rate up because that’s how your system is pushed. You don’t want to be running at that speed all the time. You need to get into gear at times, and push the velocity on something so that you can see what you can do, and get things done. There is nothing worse than waiting around for a whole year to get something done. Get it done now.

And finally, yes, I believe this is the finale group hug. We need to hug our CIO everyday. We need to get everybody in the room to do it together. This is more and more difficult, but it is more and more of our challenge as we move away from command and control, as we move to more horizontal organizations. More and more people have to be in the scrum.

So group hugs are important. Essentially, you’ve got to get everybody in that room so that they’re part of it. That is collaboration. That is really the essence of collaboration: leadership, big goals, moving it quickly, choosing priorities and doing it together.

I want to particularly dwell on collaboration. It’s an important word. I’ve heard a lot of it.

Why am I dwelling on collaboration? Partially in response to who you are and what you’re trying to do. But more importantly, because the president cares about this, and I work for the president.

The president is very keen about open government, in case you haven’t noticed. The Open Government Directive that he has issued has a couple of parts to it. This is something he really cares about and put himself out for when he was a senator. It is obviously important in terms of the health of our democracy. It is also, I think, very important in terms of the health of the government itself.

So, I refer to what he is charging us to do because two of the pieces he has asked for, we know how to do. It’s a little hard, but we know how to do it.

We start with transparency. The first part of his order was about being transparent. I think that is about democracy, about the people of this nation being able to see into their government and understand it. That means that they need data. They need data interpreted. They need information. They need information interpreted. They need information available. They need knowledge about our government. It is their way of seeing in and understanding what is happening. But as important as that is for us here, it is that the government needs it so that we can work better.

There is nothing more difficult than working in a huge bureaucracy that is obscure, where you can’t find information and where you don’t know where to go.

Transparency is about the citizen. It is also about the government worker. That is a really important notion that we need to carry around.

The IT world understands this as well as anyone. You understand about databases, data-sharing, data-access, data centers, how you manipulate data, how you match data, how we secure data, how we apply privacy to data. These are the problems that we know we can wrestle down. It is so important. And I commend you for staying with it and pushing it hard. It is not easy. There is a lot of information out there. But we need it. We need it as a nation. We need it as a government.

Data is important to GSA for the following reasons:
• GSA acts as a membrane between industry and government.
• We are at that point of touching a lot of the acquisition that goes on, creating the policies.
• We are in the middle of this. We step right in the middle, between government and industry. It’s important to both sets of people here that that work well. So that is part of why transparency really revs our engines.

OK, so that was the first part of the president’s Open Government Directive. The second part is participation. Now, participation is also crucial to the president because, of course, he was grabbing onto Web 2.0 techniques and tools throughout his campaign. That’s what made his campaign. He understands the social networking, the communities of interest, the way people can contribute their ideas, gathering together communities through our social networking tools, Web 2.0.

I think of this as the place in which we are helping people be involved. We’re helping them be involved by giving them a way to express themselves. They are, if you will, participating in a divergent event. Whenever you are online, you are with Web 2.0 kind of techniques; you are participating. We are engaged right now, as a society, in one big, huge talk show; it is online. It’s on the blogs. It’s about us all sharing our ideas and commenting on each others’ ideas.

But participation is a little bit more than that. It is, on the one hand, this sort of divergent event, where we are putting up our ideas under the bulletin board in the sky.

But it’s also got a lot of voting techniques to it, where we can rank them. We can ask people what their favorites are. This is what Google is all about. You search on Google, and you find the most popular sites, the ones that have been voted as the most important to people, the ones that are just trafficked the most. Our notions about participation and social networking are exactly that: what’s popular?

So, participation engages people. It gives them a voice. It allows them to do some ranking. These are important, new concepts for us. You are engaged in that. I think we are going to be learning more and more about the value of this and how to do that.

Participation is important to GSA. Our Citizen Services organization – Dave McClure, Martha Dorris and many others – is working on making these tools available across government, using them, practicing with them, trying them, engaging citizens with them and helping other agencies use them internally.

We at GSA are beginning to employ these ourselves so that we can be talking and sharing ideas and brainstorming. So participation is a core step forward for us as a community and in terms of our government.

So then we move to the third part of the president’s executive order. That is where we come to collaboration. Our slam gave you a little bit of a hint about it. But collaboration is third and, I think, now the challenge for us – the serious challenge. Why? Because collaboration moves beyond simple participation. It is about engaging us in what I call convergent events.

This is not just about talking and maybe doing some ranking. This is about converging on solutions using the wisdom of the crowds, the knowledge that you get from the long tail, the expertise you can reach to. That is what collaboration needs to be for us. It needs to be a way of getting to answers, getting to solutions, not just networking.

I can’t tell you enough about how important this distinction is, because our tools and our technologies are largely participation tools of technology, not collaboration in this sense of the word. So this is the challenge for us in the government. And it’s a challenge for the industry to figure out how we can do this ever better with our tools.

But there are more than tools involved. Let me give you a couple of examples so you can begin to see what my vision would be of a government that is really helping with collaboration and reaching answers. What if every person who lived in ZIP codes along the banks of the Susquehanna River (which flows through New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland) received a pass code or a PIN in the mail, and they were invited to an online event for the 12th of October? The online event is meant to find ways of making Chesapeake Bay healthier.

So, let’s play this out a little bit. Thousands of people can get on this site. A couple of people get on and say, "Well, how about if we plant trees on the shore of the river? That way, any agricultural chemicals and so on would be sort of caught by the root systems and prevented from further blending into the river."

Somebody else gets on and says, "You know, ash trees have the really best roots system for this." Somebody from the USDA gets on there and says, "Yeah, well, ash trees are great, but right now, we have an infestation of Japanese beetles on ash trees. The ash trees are having a real hard time. The Japanese beetles love the ash trees."

You have a little bit of concern about his notion.

Somebody else gets on and says, "Well, why not some other kind of tree?" Another person gets on and says, "Well, why don’t we plant trees on the border of the river and on the banks of the river?" And an editor comes on and says, "Zap! We’ve already heard that one, take it off." And then another expert comes in and says, "Well, I think the Japanese beetles will really be migrating XYZ," and ask for more expert information.

What’s happening here is you’re getting the benefit of the wisdom of the crowd. You’re getting the benefit of a review board. You’re getting the benefit of expertise, all at once, in a timed response to a question. We can be converging on solutions that would be sensible and helpful, and people would then be participating in making them even better.

That’s what I mean by collaboration. I’ll take you through one more, so you can kind of get a hint here.

Move to the other end of the country, the Golden Gate Bridge. What if everybody in the San Francisco Bay area is given a pass code so they can get on an event online, and the question is: "How can we assure the Golden Gate Bridge is sound, that it's not going to fall down?"

Promptly, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge Authority puts its structural engineers on this thing. They start describing all the inspections they do and what the tolerances are, and how much traffic goes over the bridge every day, and when it bounces and when it doesn’t bounce, and so on.

But then, some other people get on and they say, "You know, when I’m driving under that second tower, I hear this 'zzzzz-zzzzz-zzzzz-zzzzz.' You know that kind of worries me at times. You know, it’s kind of this reverberating sound. I think maybe something’s flapping on the bridge."

Someone else gets on and says, "You know, you might want to roll down your back windows because that’s the noise you make when you’re driving that kind of car, so it’s your car, not the bridge." Someone else gets on and says, "You know, I was on a picnic. And we were underneath the bridge one day. We were looking for shells in the water, and I found this 3-foot screw. At the end of it, it had G.G. on it. I think it fell off the bridge."

So another guy says, "Well, tell me about that screw. Tell me exactly the length. Were the two G's capital G's or little G's?" They have a conversation about that. They decide they better bring it to him because that might be interesting to know about.

So, we are beginning to collect expert advice, citizens’ information, and beginning to have a back and forth about knowledge that no one would know that we had. That is collaboration. That is the way to engage citizens. And that is the way to start converging on solutions.

Now, why is collaboration particularly important to GSA? GSA has a very complex customer base. Federal Acquisition Service's largest customer is the Defense Department. Public Buildings Services’ largest customer is the Judiciary.

We have a very complex list of customers. We service all three branches of government. We serve state and local. We have international connections. We serve former presidents. We really have a vast number. GSA doesn't have enough people to reach out to all these customers. We do not. We can barely network as it is. What we need to do is not network, but work with our customers.

You just think about how we need to accelerate and get things done. We need these aids. We need new tools. We need to be able to collaborate online quickly and well with our customers. That’s one of the reasons this is really important to me.

So, let me take you back a little bit through collaboration. It is the slam story I told you. It’s kind of a little, physical manifestation of the kind of collaboration we need to be doing. I’d like to have online slams, big ones, small ones, with stakeholders, fast ones, maybe elongated ones with questions asked over a period of time by our customers. All kinds of activity like this, so that we are aggressively moving through our problems and getting results.

Let me just remind you of what I think are the main ingredients, which means that there is technology needed. But the technology needs to be designed to allow for editors, people who can come on and say, "Excuse me, we’ve heard that suggestion five times. Thank you very much." Wisdom of the crowds so that you’re reaching vastly and broadly, and have experts so that you have people who can bring real expertise to the table.

Wikipedia gives us another model for this as well as the slams. Wikipedia clearly has a good editorial board. It’s clearly reaching out to wisdom of the crowd to produce an expert product.

I also want to note here that clearly, the IT world has been the leader in doing this, not just setting up tools for it. The open-source work that we’ve been involved in for 15, 20 years now is very much along these lines and inspires us to think about how we can move beyond just doing open-source work and moving into open-social-problems work.

Clearly, Linus Torvald was a leader, and he had clear goals and priorities. He was the version control guru. You know, he understood governments inherently, i.e., he held the reigns, and the crowds supplied the expertise. So he had some of the ingredients of this. I think we now need to take it to another level and figure out how to use it even more broadly.

So, why is collaboration hard? I want to just touch on a couple of things that I think we face. I know the list is long.

First of all, it’s really new. We’ve used the words, but I think we were using words that mean participation, not collaboration. That’s why I’m saying it’s new. I think we think, "Well, if just everybody gets involved and speaks, we’re collaborating." No, no, no, no; no. We’ve go to work. We’ve got to converge on solutions, not diverge in conversation.

This is new. In Detroit in the 1900s, there were about 20 engine companies, 15 fuel system companies and various camshaft companies. They were all figuring out how to make the cars, and it was a big, crazy time.

I think we’re in that time of collaboration. Lots of people are going at it in a lot of different ways. It hasn’t quite come together. We’re really in a very rattling time. Lots of stuff is permeating. I just want us to be sure we don’t confuse collaboration with participation as we go forward.

The other thing about collaboration is that it’s not in our comfort zone. I think that having worked at SRA International and Computer Sciences Corp., I know a little bit about IT, the IT world. IT gurus and IT-capable professionals can really get into the filigree. We love elegant solutions. We love taking a problem and solving it. We like to get this right.

We forget we need the car to go down the road. We need to back off at times and remember what we are working on so that we are genuinely going in the right direction. I think this is what’s happening with confusing participation and collaboration.

So, why bother collaborating? Why am I talking to you about this today?

I’m going to now switch gears a little bit because I want you understand why this really means a lot to me personally and to GSA collectively. GSA is in a very unusual and exciting position. President Obama has announced that his green team includes the following three groups: the Department of Energy, the Council of Environmental Quality at the White House and GSA.

GSA now carries a huge presidential mandate on our shoulders, and it is the environmental mandate. We are an important player in the environment because we do things, we buy things, we use things. We recommend you buy certain things. We touch the acquisition river of this government in a huge way, so we play a large part in what is consumed by this government and, therefore, what we do about the environmental footprint has a huge leverage on how the entire government functions, in terms of its environmental footprint.

GSA is also in very interesting places with respect to challenges around the economy. The president has talked about how the green economy is the next, coming economy. And I agree with him. We have barely unlocked what we can do in terms of green technologies and green solutions. And GSA has traditionally been the place where you get the cheap price. We can negotiate the best price because we’re big. When we’re in the market, we can fight down the price.

So for the first 50 years of our life, we were considered the lowest-cost option. Then, procurement reform stepped in, and it became clear that we needed to be playing a role in helping people make a good value choice. Not just the cheapest choice; the best value.

In that process, GSA has not, as intentionally as it needs to, owned the fact that we also make markets. And part of what we do in making markets, what we need to do is to be intentional and clear about that. We have a huge role to play in helping spot, steer, develop, encourage new technologies around buildings and new price – new products and services that are green.

So GSA is in the middle of this, and collaboration is underneath it all. Collaboration is crucial to the goal that GSA has set, which is to move this government to a zero environmental footprint. We are on the way to doing that.

Now, I know some of you are rolling your eyes. It’s like, "Zero-environmental-footprint government? I mean, really?’ Well, in the 1960s, NASA could have said, "Our goal is putting a man beyond the gravitational pull of the Earth or putting a man in a spaceship that went around the Earth." And if those had been the goals, we would have learned a lot about space, but we would not have gotten to the moon.

And this is our moon shot. Zero environmental footprint is this generation’s moon shot. It’s a serious business. It’s serious in terms of the economy; it’s serious in terms of the environment; and GSA is in the middle of that.

To do that, we need to embrace what I know you have all heard of as the cradle-to-cradle mentality. How we view consumption so that it is an internal circle of returning the substances after the product is used so that they can be recreated and into that product or returned to the Earth. Cradle-to-cradle is instead of cradle-to-grave, consumption and disposal.

At GSA we have design and disposal departments. They actually need to be one. Those are the kinds of things we’re thinking about at GSA.

But the cradle-to-cradle work will require us to solve many, many, many puzzles, and it will require ingenuity, and it will require a spirit and an engagement. All of those things are what collaboration is about. Therefore, we need the rapid, puzzle-solving process; we need experts; we need that long tail where we can find that odd screw on the beach. And we need the wisdom of the crowds. We need all of that in order to engage in a real, serious effort to zero in on our zero environmental footprint.

So I basically am here to say, help us learn about collaborating; help us all get better at it; help us to develop better tools, better skills so that we can, as a government, converge – not diverge – converge on the zero-environmental-footprint goal that is in front of us.

Last Reviewed: 2017-08-13