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Johnson Says GSA's mission is the mission of its customer agencies

SmartPay Conference
Atlanta, Georgia
August 10, 2010
Condensed Remarks
Martha Johnson

Good morning, everyone. I am delighted to be here today. This marks my sixth month at GSA and I must say this is quite a big event, so I'm really delighted to be here at this time.

GSA's mission is the mission of its customer agencies. Our mission is to support our customers with expertise and functionality so that they can do their work. I think of it as if the Veterans' Administration is responsible for taking care of our veterans, and we at GSA are responsible for taking care of the Veterans' Administration. Similarly, if the Department of Energy is responsible for being sure that we have clean and appropriate energy sources in our country, we at GSA are responsible to support the Department of Energy.

It is an embedded mission, and it means that we are extended across the government; and in fact, across more than just the federal government. And it is through the SmartPay program you can see the extent to which we are supporting so many organizations in their work in serving the country.

At this time we also face the challenge of a significantly struggling economy. It is a tough time in America. We in this program are giving the government the tools and the resources in order to operate in the most efficient and smart ways as possible. These are ways in which we can make a substantial contribution going forward and truly deal with the issues of our nation, both in supporting the programs across the government and in seeing the money that the taxpayers give to the government is well used.

Let me also say that as I have returned to GSA I have found that it is in a very important moment. What is particularly important about this time for GSA is that President Obama has looked to the central offices of GSA and he has understood that GSA is an asset to this administration. I am not sure that in the past the president and the White House have really understood the extent to which we can be an asset to the administrations.

And this offers us tremendous visibility, but it also, of course, offers us tremendous opportunity, if you will. We are on the stage more. We are in the limelight, and we are supporting vital programs.

The president has turned to GSA for his sustainability agenda. It is really quite a moment to sit in the audience at a press conference and to have the president announce his "green team," and to say it consists of three players: the Department of Energy, the Council for Environmental Quality, and GSA. My jaw sort of dropped. I hadn't expected that. Other departments which I thought would be on the list were not mentioned. He is looking to us to carry that agenda.

And you ask, “why?” It is because GSA touches the river of consumption that is supporting the federal government. We have either direct or indirect effects on that consumption and, therefore, the supply chain to the government as well as the consumption norms of the government are things we can influence. It's a huge opportunity for us. And as mentioned, I have challenged GSA – and the leadership has accepted – the challenge of focusing GSA on a zero environmental footprint as our goal. And I mean it: zero environmental footprint.

We, because of our positioning as a membrane between industry and government, we have the leverage to explore and to validate and to maximize the opportunities that we can understand and discover and encourage around how we can lighten our footprint on this planet.

And so it is, in a sense, the moon shot, of this time. When President Kennedy said to the nation, let us reach the moon, and let's send a person to the moon and return him safely home, it was a challenge to the nation that the nation did not know how to respond to. We did not understand the techniques. We did not have the computer systems. It galvanized our economy. Similarly, thinking about a goal, focusing on a goal of zero environmental footprint can galvanize this economy and pull us forward as a country and pull us together as a community.

But the president is not just looking at us for sustainability help. He is also asking us to pay attention to the issues of open government. As a senator, the legislation that he sponsored and that was passed into law was open government legislation. He is deeply committed to the notion that we as a government can be understood and seen by the citizens. It is through that kind of information and information transfer that we can become a stronger nation. GSA is in the middle of that as well.

I speak of both of these things because both of these illustrate the kind of innovative edge that will be pulling how we buy, how we consume, how we monitor, and how we collect data and understand the economic aspects of our government and how we spend our money.

GSA also carries a big responsibility in terms of the leverage that we can assert on the economy and on the market. GSA is a big procurer. We are often a consolidated buyer. In that sense, GSA can make markets. We can influence the market quite dramatically. We make and move markets with the help of the data that we receive about our purchasing, and that data will help us and our customers understand the challenges of achieving government-wide sustainability. It's a very serious responsibility and, therefore, the data and the understanding of that flow of our economy is very important.

We also offer expert advice to agencies in terms of their purchasing and in terms of their entire workplace. GSA plays a role where in the past we were more of a mandated company store. Now we are the shopping partner who can explain and offer the best ideas about how to use the federal dollar.

This means that GSA has a lot to do. And it is a big organization. It's a big box. We serve a lot of different organizations, and we offer a lot of services. To organize ourselves we have a couple of main ideas which I'd like to relate to the work that you do with SmartPay just briefly so you can understand how we are going forward in building our response to all these challenges.

There are three simple concepts. The first is that we are aiming for operational excellence. We believe that whatever we do, we need to do well; we need to do with better efficiency and leverage at all time. There is no question that the SmartPay program has supported us in that operational excellence goal. The fact that we have managed to save $1.5 billion in administrative and operating costs by using the SmartPay purchase card is an enormous endorsement of the work that is being done across the government with this program.

The size of the refunds is also remarkable, and speaks to how we can make use of efficiencies and help organizations operate in a much more excellent manner, and that is always a continuing challenge. So operational excellence is one of the ways that we are organizing our work.

Another piece of our strategy is innovation. I know that shortly there are going to be a couple of recognitions for innovation, people and organizations that are doing some very next-step kind of work using the SmartPay purchase process. That is what we need to be doing more of; if we are making markets we need to be on the edge of understanding what is coming around the bend. Innovation is the way in which we are trying and testing and practicing and seeing all of that.

Within this framework of innovation, I have a comment about how GSA, because of our size, is able to take on risk differently than client organizations. We have big shoulders. We reach across the whole government. We can practice with ideas and support innovation that way. I often say that we should fail fast, we should fail forward, and we should fail fruitfully as a way to learn. We cannot get it right the first time. We need to be practicing at all times. So innovation – especially the kinds of innovation you're doing, switching over from paper to electronic processing, of course; using declining balance cards, foreign transaction cards, all the kinds of ways in which we can continue to stimulate and help our purchasing work better is of huge help.

The third arena besides operational excellence and innovation is customer intimacy. This is the work that we are quite challenged by because everyone is our customer, if you will. We certainly have an enormous stakeholder map. Customer intimacy these days is not about just simply dropping by for sales calls. Customer intimacy is about understanding what's going on with the business of our client agencies. And we do that through data.

And GSA, I've taken to say, services is our middle name. We are about providing services to our clients; which, in this day of an information age and a services economy, means that one of the biggest things we can do for our clients is tell them what's going on. And you do that with data. It is data that comes out of our programs, specifically the SmartPay program.

We know more about our customers at times than they know about themselves. This is a valuable role. It's a nuanced role. We need to use that data appropriately. But being able to array for a customer what they are doing against what the rest of the government is doing is an enormous help for agencies as they are trying to make their decisions about their programs.

So the SmartPay effort is one that touches everything in our economy, in our security programs, in our supplies, in our services, in our transportation. Through this charge card process we are able to reach across our government, and we are able to supply our civil servants with the information they need to make good decisions.

In this room is a range of people who are supporting all of this work. I am pleased to have such a diverse community coming together to learn how to take the programs to the next level and to gain professional skills in operating the programs. I know there are industry reps here. There are financial staff, program coordinators, budget personnel, general representatives, billing officials. As a former CFO I understand some of the pieces of this. It is a wonderful time to share ideas, and I am pleased to say that there are 6,700 people here, and there are a lot of people with a lot of expertise that you could all gain from.

I have a couple of challenges I'd like to put out to you. One is that I would like you to do everything you can to continue to think creatively about how we can up the ante. As I said, our economy is being challenged. The more efficiencies we can find, the better – and the better we will then be able to use the taxpayer dollar for true programmatic value.

I'd also like you to be thinking and sharing your ideas – brainstorming about what is the next big thing in the financial industry and financial management going forward. What are the next big waves of change coming? Share and think and speculate about that so that we can get ahead of the curve.

And then I would like us also to consider how we can partner with banks to identify true cost-saving tools for this government. If you can stretch your minds and share your ideas, we would all benefit greatly. I'd like to come back next year with stories of new ideas that are beginning to percolate and take form.

So just as GSA is moving fast and is in a much more visible position and carrying many more responsibilities, so too is the SmartPay community. Your contribution is to help this government become an ever more effective and responsive entity to serve our country.

I thank you very much for being here today. Please enjoy your training, and I trust that we will see you again next year. (Applause.)

Last Reviewed: 2017-08-13