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Johnson Says GSA is Helping to Green Government

As prepared for delivery

Remarks by
Martha Johnson
U.S. General Services Administration
GreenGov Conference
Washington, DC
October 31, 2011

Good morning.

I’m delighted to be here to help kick off the 2011 GreenGov Symposium. It’s a tremendously important event, and I know that this year, the conference will shed some important lessons.

Let me begin by saying that at GSA, we conduct the business of government: We manage acquisitions for the federal government, touching a vast river of consumption worth about $95 billion every year. We help purchase and maintain a federal fleet of some 400,000 vehicles. And we build, manage, and dispose of 360 million square feet of space, by some estimates more than 2 percent of all commercial U.S. real estate. Our reach is broad, and our impact is deep, and to me, GreenGov brings it all together. Business and government. Industry and agencies. Solving problems. Collaborating. Getting it done.

Because of our role, GSA has the potential to make, move, and influence markets. Where some parts of the federal government regulate and others legislate, GSA is in the position to incentivize. And we’re also in the position to model new behaviors, new technologies, and new ways of thinking for the rest of the federal family and the private sector.

In these tough economic times, however, innovation can be difficult. Inherently, it requires risk-acceptance, and that can be daunting. And, to give a name to the elephant in the room, agencies are getting serious about the budget pressures under which we must now operate.

I have worked in and around government for more than 20 years, and I’ve seen budget debates and austerity conversations come and go. In the past, budgets were tightened, priorities were shifted. Agencies were told to cut back on the carbs or ditch the ice cream. Government was put on a budgetary diet. Today is different. Today, we’re having our stomach stapled.

Other agencies are feeling it, too. They know now – they feel it in their gut – that operational efficiency and smart resource management aren’t “nice-to-haves.” They’re imperative. And, in the face of shrinking budgets and growing demands, they’re reaching ever deeper for new solutions and creative responses.

But, there’s whiplash here. In the midst of the enormous budget constraints, there are extraordinary possibilities opening up. New technologies, solutions, inventions, and intellectual property burst onto the scene daily. The clean-energy and green-tech industries are maturing before our eyes, and with the commitment shown by this administration, they promise high-skilled, green-collar jobs for a high-tech, efficient economy.

As I’ve traveled the country, I have listened to companies large and small present new, pragmatic, and successful solutions to help agencies lower costs and boost productivity. I’ve toured production facilities, watched bustling loading docks, handled new materials, and talked to energetic, inspired workers.

I’ve met oil drillers who are now geothermal drillers. Vets who now install solar panels. Students at community colleges who are eager to plunge into the 21st century, green collar workforce. The new economy – with its tremendous possibilities and exceptional opportunities – is upon us. And across the board smart, resource-conscious techniques and technologies are on parity, practical, safe, and scalable.

So here we stand. Enormous cuts, extraordinary possibilities. The framework of the new frontier is defined by limits on the one hand – budget constraints – and possibilities on the other – new technological capacity.

The question is, within this frame, how does the government succeed? How can we thrive? What road do we take?

On the face of it, the framework presents a contradiction. How can you be in a position of constraints and a position of possibilities simultaneously?

And the answer is that we must lean forward into a sustainable future. When we can choose, we must choose the future, not hold to the habits of the past.

Let me explain. At GSA, we have embraced the sustainability agenda, in the extreme, if you will. We agreed as a senior management team to set zero environmental footprint as our organization’s aspirational goal. ZEF.

What does ZEF really mean to an organization such as GSA?

To start, it’s ambitious. It’s “out there.” It’s exciting to the next generation. It is about clean water and clean air, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and so on.

And, as the administrator, it resonates with my environmental side. I am, I confess, a hybrid-driving, composting, put-on-a-sweater, buy local, regifting, save-the-soap-bits mama.

But, truth be told, that isn’t why I support and encourage a zero environmental footprint goal. No. I support and encourage ZEF because it is about a good government getting ever better. It’s about supporting businesses today and teeing up the workforce of the future. It’s about the next hilltop, the next mountain, the next frontier. It’s about innovation and discovery. And it’s about no waste.

At its core, a “zero” goal means zero waste – whether it’s wasted space, wasted energy, wasted resources, or waste in processes. This is big, and it requires us to think in new ways.

We can’t just think about the greenhouse gas emissions that went into making a product; we also have to think about how that product is used. And reused. And then disposed.

We can’t just think about the design of a building; we also have to think about whether that building was built for its first day as well as its last – and every day in between.

We can’t just think about the recyclability of a product; we also have to think about the upstream supply chain that created that product.

We can’t just think about the present; we also have to think about the future.

At GSA, we have a tremendous opportunity to help this agenda. Our laundry list of accomplishments is long, and it’s matched only by our to-do list.

From purchasing more than a hundred electric vehicles last May to synching federal buildings across the country in a leap toward smart building technology, from embracing award-winning sustainable design to pulling efficiencies and life cycle considerations through our supply chain, GSA is on the front lines of the government’s move toward ever greater resource stewardship. And we’re not done yet. Not nearly.

We have so much to learn, and so many new and exciting discoveries ahead of us. The deeper we dig, the more we uncover. And as we do, we stand ready to help the rest of the government.

But the effort to build and support a sustainable and vibrant economy isn’t just about us. It can’t be. This is about our nation’s future, and as a result, it will require more than our efforts today. It will require our efforts tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.

We have to pull on this oar together to make headway, and that’s why the GreenGov Symposium is so important. It brings us together – industry and government, committed boomers like me and brilliant millenials like our next panel, students, teachers, and concerned citizens. So take this opportunity to learn from each other and develop partnerships. I’m confident that this year’s conference will be a tremendous success.

Thank you, and I look forward to hearing about the accomplishments and aspirations of our next panelists.

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