The Player

Lifelong civil servant takes on high-profile challenge to run GSA's new procurement services organization.

G. Martin Wagner wakes up most days around 6 a.m. Typically, the new acting acquisition commissioner at the General Services Administration eats a breakfast of buttered sourdough toast with raspberry jam, chased by black coffee. On the kitchen table is a copy of The Washington Post, which he reads quickly-headlines and opening paragraphs.

Around 8 o'clock, it's time to clamber into the car. Odds are that the youngest of his three daughters wants a ride to high school, which is on the way from their Arlington home to Wagner's Crystal City office in Northern Virginia. By 8:30, the deluge begins. "It's more intense," he says of his job as acting head of GSA's Federal Acquisition Service. Wagner has been with GSA more than 15 years, most recently as head of its Office of Government-wide Policy, before starting his new gig in December.

Wagner is a three-decade civil servant accustomed to operating in the background. If you want to get something done, he says, make sure other people get the credit. His job now is to rescue an organization cast adrift. It shows, the toll taken by contracting scandals. So much so, that it's still in the throes of a reorganization: Revenue is down, morale is down. The agency's largest customer, the Defense Department, shies away. Other agencies are bringing out competing multiple-award contracts. Wagner's savvy is being put to a high-profile test.

This isn't his first time directing an acquisition organization-Wagner's first GSA job was deputy commissioner, later acting commissioner, of the now defunct Information Resources Management Services. "In some sense, when I'm here, I'm going back to where I was," he says. "Organizations are different, but there is some continuity."

So far in his career, his mode of operation has been strategic concealment and flexibility. He's not a lone dissenter crying in the wilderness-the type everyone says really understood the problem but couldn't get anyone to listen. Government is filled with people who are right. The real trick is getting something done, he says. Try introducing a solution into the thoughts of others as you see their opinions forming, he says. Don't lay it down as your solution. Find the person who's really driving an organization's behavior-not necessarily the executive with a gold-plated title. "Help that person to see an approach; that's the way you get it done," Wagner says.

These days, though, the problem runs in the opposite direction. "I'm in charge, and people are way too deferential to my ideas," he says. Equally important as planting ideas is harvesting them. "You figure out who to listen to and on what, and you extract from that," he says. Government and industry are full of tales of Wagner paying heed to their concerns. "He doesn't sit there like some of us and tell you what the answer is going to be," says Frank McDonough, a former GSA senior executive.

At the same time, Wagner admits that becoming head of the outfit translates into less day-to-day frustration. Friends and acquaintances say they lately see Wagner as especially energized. He ended up underemployed at his last perch, some say, when the Office of Management and Budget promised in early 2005 to cut the GSA policy shop's budget and strip away some of its functions.

At the top of Wagner's agenda is getting GSA to focus on what he calls its value proposition for federal customers. When President Truman founded the agency in 1949, equipment was expensive but people were cheap. Today, equipment is almost beside the point-achieving economies of scale means standardizing business processes, Wagner adds. GSA should be making agencies more internally effective, he believes. "It's not about revenue, it's about value," he says.

But as agencies standardize and centralize their processes, they demand more operational control. That will require GSA to do more joint ventures with agencies, he says. Give the agencies operational control but let them attain it through GSA-shared contract vehicles. The agency also should improve its hosted information technology service delivery, he adds.

By his own admission, Wagner is a big-picture guy. A more urgent task, he acknowledges, is gaining back lost customers, which means grappling with GSA's unfinished reorganization of procurement services. For more than a year, the agency has been reordering in the wake of procurement abuses. GSA officially began last September to merge two previously separate buying services into the Federal Acquisition Service, but basics, such as the new regional reporting structure, still are taking shape. "It's killing the organization how long it's taken," Wagner says. Many in the private sector fault the agency lately for self-obsession, to the point of hurting customer relationships. "His first and foremost challenge is bringing business back into that operation," says Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Washington-based Coalition for Government Procurement. The longer it takes, the worse the recovery will be, Wagner acknowledges, but adds that he wants to have it wrapped up in weeks, not months.

Wagner grew up in Tucson, Ariz., but left in 1965 to earn undergraduate and master's degrees from Princeton University in New Jersey (later returning for a second master's), and never returned from the East Coast. Horizons are wider here, he says. "The last time I visited [Tucson], the front page was about somebody vandalizing saguaros [cacti]," he says. Wagner likes being at the center of trends, finding excitement. As examples, he cites analyzing space programs in the early 1970s, later switching to environmental and energy issues, moving to telecommunications as Ma Bell divested, entering government e-commerce as information technology heated up. Now, he's in charge of a service organization whose very reason for existence is shifting.

Typically around 6 p.m., Wagner heads home. He and his wife, Elizabeth Cotsworth, who directs the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Radiation and Indoor Air, may do some catch-up reading, but Wagner says he usually doesn't work much at home. By most accounts, he also loves socializing. "He's at his best when he's around a number of people," McDonough says. Wagner's eldest daughters already are out on their own-one in Mali in the Peace Corps, the other at Barnard College in New York City. Evenings are spent on "dinner, maga- zines, books, something like that," he says. Next morning, it all starts again.

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