It’s a Dirty Job

But someone has to run the General Services Administration.

The General Services Administration is once again under siege. Unpopular decisions have left its chief isolated, leading to reports of low staff morale. Allegations of abuse of power and a messy investigation by the inspector general have been all but impossible to shake. And a growing drumbeat is calling for the agency head to resign. Sound familiar? It might resemble the plight of Lurita Alexis Doan, GSA's current administrator, but that description actually refers to the tumultuous two-year reign of GSA Administrator Roger Johnson, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton. A well-respected business executive who once ran a Fortune 500 technology firm, Johnson suffered the negative publicity of an IG investigation as well as a Justice Department probe. He was cleared, but he also struggled with disgruntled employees.

And while the foibles of Doan and Johnson, who died in 2005, garnered the most unflattering headlines, their experiences heading GSA are not unique. In fact, the past five administrators, dating back to 1990, all found themselves under clouds of controversy, either for ethical missteps or decisions that caused political unrest.

Now, with Doan's political future in question after the Office of Special Counsel found she violated the Hatch Act, a growing chorus of procurement experts says it's time to rethink the way GSA administrators are chosen before history repeats itself, again.

17 Long Years

For an agency that typically flies below the radar in Washington, GSA certainly has had its share of problems, most of them connected directly to the administrator's office. Allegations of corruption and mismanagement date back to the Nixon administration, but the past 17 years have been particularly rough.

Controversial management decisions dinged the almost three-year run of Richard Austin, who came under fire in the early 1990s for transferring federal property to the Navy, allegedly to prevent homeless advocates from using it as a shelter. Austin also ran into trouble when, for several months, he refused to halt the excavation of a Manhattan building project, even after construction workers unearthed a pre-Revolutionary African-American burial ground. Austin relented when Congress threatened to withhold GSA's funds.

Three interim administrators followed Austin in the five months before Clinton settled on Johnson in July 1993; he left in early 1996. Johnson's rocky tenure was derailed by allegations he abused the power of office, billing unnecessary expenses to taxpayers and using GSA employees to carry out personal tasks. Although he eventually was cleared of all charges, Johnson left government before Clinton's second term.

For the most part, David Barram, who headed GSA from March 1996 until December 2000, steadied the ship, bringing stability and purpose back to the agency. But Barram ran into an ugly personnel dust-up when he attempted to shut down all Federal Supply Service warehouses. The move, which would have cut the jobs of as many as 2,000 people, including hundreds of blind and disabled workers, eventually was scaled down to six warehouses and 300 jobs.

President Bush's first GSA administrator, Stephen A. Perry, who served from May 2001 until October 2005, was buffeted by repeated legal controversies. The GSA inspector general found widespread violations of laws at the Federal Technology Service, which has since merged with FSS to form the Federal Acquisition Service. Also on Perry's watch, the Army acquired private sector interrogators for Iraqi prisons using a GSA contract reserved for information technology purchases. And Perry's former chief of staff, David Safavian, was convicted of lying to investigators about his relationship with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

When Perry exited, the hope was that GSA had finally turned the corner. But Doan, his successor, has been a lightning rod for critics, assailed for attempting to award a $20,000 contract to a friend and for intervening in a contract dispute on behalf of Sun Microsystems against the advice of her own contracting officers. The special counsel's ruling was the final straw for many in Congress, who have called on Doan to resign. President Bush, however, has yet to make a final decision on her future. GSA officials declined to comment for this story.

The agency is exhausted from the relentless negative publicity, former officials say, and needs to make significant changes to regain its credibility. "This is an agency that should be managed and administered in a nonpartisan way," says Dwight Ink, who served as interim GSA administrator for brief periods during the Nixon and Reagan administrations. "It should not be politically inclined or motivated, with the exception of overall policy. But, from what I can tell, professional standards there have declined."

Third-Tier Job

There is far from consensus on the cause of the troubles for GSA administrators. Robert Woods, former FTS commissioner, says the General Services Administration is considered at best a third-tier job in the political appointee pecking order. Presidential favorites get high-level positions at the State and Justice departments and the Pentagon. The White House Personnel Office vets candidates for the top position at GSA, which lacks Cabinet-level status, and the president and his top advisers typically offer little input.

Woods understands the process better than most. He was a candidate for the position briefly in 2001, but had second thoughts when he determined that the Bush administration was taking the hiring process too lightly. He took himself out of the running and the position was later given to Perry. "It's a desirable job, but it's not critical to the success of the U.S. government," says Woods, who now runs Topside Consulting Group in Vienna, Va. "Consequently, you don't always get the best talent."

The lack of attention GSA receives during the appointment process is befuddling to seasoned observers. The agency influences the management of $500 billion in federal assets-more than five times the Veterans Affairs Department's annual budget-including 8,300 government-owned or leased buildings and 205,000 vehicles. Yet to many outsiders, GSA is a complex amalgam of byzantine acquisition regulations that represent the height of government bureaucracy.

"To some, GSA seems like this sleepy little agency," says Neal Fox, a former assistant commissioner for commercial acquisition who now runs his own consulting firm. "But there's so much on their plate and there are so many political interests that people care about-acquisition, policy and building and care of government-owned property around the country."

"It's just a matter of time before it happens to everyone at GSA," says G. Martin Wagner, who until recently ran the Federal Acquisition Service. "It just depends what you are on the cover of The Washington Post for. . . . But there will always be controversies, no matter what."

So are all GSA chiefs doomed to suffer congressional inquiries and inspector general investigations?

"Rubbish," says Ink. "You can avoid getting involved in scandals. But you need someone at the White House to work with you-because if the White House undermines you, it is hard to stay out of trouble."

Nevertheless, hand-holding by a political godfather will carry an appointee only so far, as embattled former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales recently learned. Ultimately, appointees must rely on their experience, instincts and the advice of colleagues to guide their most difficult decisions.

"This [GSA] job necessitates an understanding of the way government thinks, and that's different from the way private industry thinks," says Jonathan Aronie, a partner in the government contracts group of law firm Sheppard Mullin Richter and Hampton in Washington and co-author of Multiple Award Schedule Contracting (Xlibris Corp., 2002). "And hiring someone with private sector experience is not a magic cure for the complexities that come with running a major agency."

Rookies Need Not Apply

Whether selected by President Bush or his successor, the next GSA administrator must possess a résumé dissimilar from those of most recent agency bosses, experts say. With the exception of Barram, who inarguably had the smoothest tenure in recent history, none of the past five administrators possessed a single day of federal experience before appointment.

And while each touted a successful tenure in the private sector, many contend that industry experience alone is insufficient to competently serve as government's business manager. They point to Doan's violation of the Hatch Act-a rookie mistake by most estimations-as proof that a lack of government experience is a difficult hindrance to surmount.

"You need to be a generalist, recognizing how all the different elements contribute to the overall running of the government," says a former federal acquisition official who requested anonymity. "This particular agency needs someone who can strategically develop a program that meets the future needs of the government."

Allan Burman, former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy at the Office of Management and Budget, says limiting the pool of available candidates would further complicate an already difficult search. "I am reluctant to do things that would narrow the [government's] choices to decide who would run the agency," says Burman, who now runs the Washington-based consulting firm, Jefferson Solutions. "I don't believe the GSA administrator needs to have government experience."

Most agree that the ideal GSA administrator would have a robust background in business and government, not to mention the financial security to forgo more profitable opportunities in the private sector. But does the perfect candidate exist? Maybe not.

"Seldom is there a perfect match with the right person and the right criteria," says Jonathan Breul, executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government. Breul, who served as senior adviser at OMB during Bush's first term, says the key is to surround the administrator with a strong team of experienced officials who complement the appointee's skills and plug any holes.

An experienced deputy, familiar with how the agency runs, can be vital to an administrator's survival. But if the GSA administrator is going to rely so heavily on veteran career staffers, an obvious question persists: Why not take the next step and make the GSA administrator a career post? Procurement experts are evenly divided on the issue. Fox says having a careerist head GSA is a bad idea. For all their internal knowledge, careerists lack the political savvy or perspective necessary to succeed in the role. "I don't think it's possible to remove politics from the selection of a GSA administrator," he says.

But Steve Kelman, the top procurement official at OMB during the mid-1990s, says the switch would not only work but might also boost staff morale and recruitment. "I would like to see a higher proportion of agencies hire from the career [Senior Executive Service] ranks because it provides encouragement to them and allows the government the opportunity to keep them from defecting to the private sector," Kelman says. "It's a way to retain really smart and capable people."

Sales, Sales, Sales

While a dramatic overhaul at the top of GSA could reverse a few of the agency's recent troubles, some argue that it's the organizational system, rather than simply the administrator position, that needs to be turned upside down.

GSA generates much of its budget through fees charged to other agencies to use its pre-negotiated contracts. While the fee-for-service structure allows an agency to be self-sustaining, modeling an agency after a profit-driven corporation has some obvious drawbacks. The Government Accountability Office has found that fee-for-service operations must increase sales volume to grow, which can clash with the desire to follow procurement regulations. The system also can lead to conflicts of interest A senior procurement official who asked to remain anonymous says GSA is so dependent on private industry for sustenance that it has become little more than a sales agency for contractors.

He says no matter who is at the helm, GSA's troubles will persist until it begins relying once again on congressional appropriations.

"Somewhere along the line, GSA decided to get off the federal teat and put on the contractor's teat," the official explains. "They need to go back to representing the taxpayer and only the taxpayer. Because the reality is whatever your personal qualifications, you are doomed to focus on sales-because that's what the agency's mission is. That's the paradigm."

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