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Johnson Says Sustainability is all about Wringing Out Inefficiencies and Boosting Performance

As prepared for delivery

Remarks by
Martha Johnson
U.S. General Services Administration
GovEnergy Conference
Cincinnati, Ohio
August 8, 2011

Hello GovEnergy! It’s terrific to be back. I always appreciate invitations, but I appreciate repeat invitations even more. And I’m glad you came back, as well.

As many of you know, GSA outfits the government. We manage about 360 million square feet of space, purchase and/or manage about 400,000 vehicles. Our annual utility bill clocks in at $490 million. We steer some ten million trips a year.

This is why I’m delighted to be at GovEnergy: This conference gets to the guts of what GSA is about. Energy. It’s our meat and potatoes, the fuel for our sprawling enterprise. Therefore, I’d like to take this opportunity to share what I see as the future of government energy management.

We in the federal resource management community find ourselves at an inflection point. For years, we’ve been climbing up a nice S-curve of efficiency and effectiveness. We know how to improve.

But we now need to transform. We cannot stay on the same curve, seeking a steeper slope, faster acceleration. We actually have to jump to another S-curve. Jump the S-curve. For a crowd that understands graphs and discontinuous curves, it’s a nice, wonky way of describing the work ahead.

Now, allow me to say that we at GSA know about this business of jumping S-curves. It’s in our DNA.

In the 70s, when energy prices fluctuated, we installed our first green roof – one piece of the investment that now positions our building inventory at 22 percent greater efficiency than private-sector counterparts.

In the 80s, GSA rationalized our portfolio of brick and mortar supply stores into big-box buys and centralized purchasing, which adapted nicely to the emerging era of digital buying.

We entered the 90s with a fledgling Design Excellence Program that has since transformed the face of our judiciary and reinvigorated the notion of how the federal government presents itself in our local communities. And, we closed that decade as one of the first agencies with enterprisewide Internet access and with a new government concept and portal:

GSA continues to go first, with our jump to the cloud, electric vehicle buy, telework at scale, new workspace paradigms, first mover strategy, and more. Yes, it is cool to be in government these days. Jumping the S-Curve is where it’s at.

It is with this attitude, spirit, culture, and capability that we are positioning ourselves for the decade ahead. And, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to recognize the inflection point that is reshaping how the government must operate going forward.

Two things are upon us:

The first is the budget. In the past, budgets were tightened, priorities shifted; funds were reallocated. Now, the constraints are wholesale. GSA’s major construction and alterations appropriation, for example, was cut 90 percent this year. Programs across the entire government are under new and direct scrutiny. Operational efficiency is not a nice-to-have. It’s essential; it’s imperative.

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 emerge daily. The clean-energy industry is maturing before our eyes. I have sat in a venture capitalist's conference room and listened to a parade of presentations – 10 minutes each – of companies with new, pragmatic, and successful solutions. I’ve toured production facilities, watched bustling loading docks, handled new materials, and talked to delighted workers. The new economy is upon us. And, in the energy segment, solar, wind, geothermal, and more are on parity, practical, safe, and scale able.

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?

Colleagues, the answer is actually simple.

The answer is sustainability.

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 cooping as our organization’s aspirational goal. ZEF. I spoke about it last year at GovEnergy.

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

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 is about no waste.

It means managing to no waste. It’s about zero waste – removing waste – whether it’s wasted space, wasted energy, wasted resources, or waste in processes.

Waste. I hate it.

And, eliminating waste is a huge lever for government as it faces down the budget constraints and takes advantage of the innovation bursting on the scene. No waste is about finding new ways to wring out inefficiencies and boost performance. It gives us a path between the great constraints and the great possibilities.

Sustainability is the key.

And, how can I express my delight in working for a boss who gets this. President Barack Obama has been very clear. He knows that the way out of our constrained resources situation and our economic blues is to welcome and invest in our green economy.

But, how do we do this? We get the logic and the strategy. But how do we do this? I can see frustration in people who want to believe the big picture – the big answer – but can’t grasp how we go from A to B.

We have two cards to play; maybe more, but these are the ones that I predict will make the transformational difference.

First, and again I’m glad I’m here with a bit of a wonky crowd. First, we need evidence and rigorous analytics. I like to say it that way because if you say we need data, everyone gets glassy eyed. Yes, data is good, but there’s the old saw that we all know: data overload, swamped by data, drowned by data.

I think of it differently. Data provide evidence. And you can never have too much evidence. And the analysis we need to do is of a forensic nature. What is the evidence telling us? What story is it revealing? What truth is it supporting?

We at GSA are on it. We are all about data; I mean evidence. And we are about turning that data, I mean evidence, into recommendations, knowledge, and paths forward.

GSA has always had an unprecedented amount of data. This is data about how the government is working. The database grows every day and gives us ever new views on how we can move forward.

For example, at the Maj. Gen. Emmett J. Bean Federal Center in Indianapolis, GSA and other agency partners are testing different types of solar panels. We are collecting evidence. In addition to producing more than 1.5 million kilowatt-hours annually in clean energy, the Bean Federal Center is building an empirical database so we know better where to put our solar dollars. In what climate, in what sort of installation, in what configuration, and in what volume. We are getting the real scoop.

In another example, GSA is about smart building, wiring a building so we can manage it in a micro climate way. We have taken this a step further and are wiring a full set of buildings, linking them to management systems, and analyzing this larger body of data, I mean evidence. From this we will be – hands down – smarter about how buildings should be used. In short, we have scale and our data can give us ever bigger and more complete answers.

But evidence alone is not sufficient for the transformation we require.

As I said, it is in the forensics, the analysis, and the intelligent quest for better answers that we will jump ahead.

But, the fastest way to do that work is to put the evidence in front of as many creative people as possible. And that means transparency. It takes the broader community – with its knowledge, research capacity, curiosity and collaborative acumen – to effect the best analysis.

That’s the thinking behind Data.Gov and Energy.Data.Gov, two sites that invite the public in, and push data out. Thanks to these sites, everything from seismology reports to monthly utility sales are available for public consumption and analysis. It’s an unprecedented level of information, and it’s now open and available.

President Obama has made transparency a hallmark of his administration. He understands that an ever higher-performance government needs ever more brains, talent, and eyeballs on its problems.

At GSA, we believe we need to work with, hear from, and collaborate with you. GovEnergy, by partnering across agencies and with industry we can build the nation’s 21st century economy. Let’s work the data, expect and embrace transparency, and enjoy the next revolution in prosperity.

Thank you.

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