Thurman Davis Sr. began working for the General Services Administration in 1963 and served in various capacities before taking on the role of deputy administrator in 1995. Davis plans to retire on July 3, and during his tenure has served as deputy to three GSA administrators, worked in almost every corner of the agency and has seen GSA shrink from more than 44,000 employees to approximately 13,000 employees.
On Thursday Davis sat down with GovExec.com and reflected on his four decades of employment with GSA, the agency's decision to close the Federal Supply Service warehouses, telecommuting and what the future holds for GSA.
On changes at GSA
Davis: We've gotten smaller. When I came onboard we were at about somewhere in the mid-40,000 [employees] range and, of course, now we're at about 13,000. We're working a lot more efficiently now. Some of the functions were given to other agencies. . . . For instance, we used to manage the strategic stockpile and that was moved to the Department of Defense. But a good deal of it has to do with a more effective and efficient way of doing things, [and] competitive sourcing. We're doing a lot of things now with private sector contractors that we used to do with our own staff.
I think we're going to always have to keep changing. When I first came to GSA in 1963, we were a true monopoly. If you wanted it, and GSA produced it, you had to get it from GSA, no ifs, ands and buts, and that's in a way not too cool because in some cases it's probably not enough incentive for you to do what you do. If you wanted paper, pencils or anything like that, you had to buy it from GSA Federal Supply Service, you couldn't just go out and buy it, and if you were lucky, you got what you wanted. We've come to a point now where we realized how foolish that is, a paper clip is a paper clip is a paper clip. So now we use commercial items whenever we can and that's just about everywhere, and we are saying that if it is good enough to be sold on the open market, it's good enough for us. Streamlining of the procurement rules and regulations was a significant thing.
Today, we are predominantly an agency that is like a provider of choice, you have options. If we're not satisfying you, you have options, you [can] go someplace else. So, what I think that means is, we have to figure out how we can [be] competitive. We're not competitive with the private sector, we use the private sector, but we are competitive with other GSAs in other agencies, so we are trying to use our bulk-buying ability and our contracting expertise and all of that to remain competitive with those agencies who are doing similar kinds of things both for themselves and maybe in some cases for other agencies as well.
On the decision to close the Federal Supply Service warehouses
Davis: I think it was the right thing to do. We probably needed to spend more time convincing our union partners that this was the right way to go. Now, having said that, I'm not too sure that we would have convinced them, because it was something that folks didn't think should be done. We have different missions, the management here and the unions, when it came to those depots. Our job is to try to make sure we are operating as efficiently and effectively as we can and serving our customers in doing so. The unions' mission is about jobs, and sometimes those two don't come together too well.
On the administrators he has worked with over the past eight years
Davis: They all have been somewhat different in their approach, but I generally believe they were the right administrators for the time they got here. When Roger [Johnson] came [1993 to 1996], he was about trying to improve the image of the agency. We went through a period there where there was some feeling that maybe the agency no longer needed to exist and we should do away with it. And that was kind of like a wake-up call for all of us, but we had to keep convincing folks that we had a reason for being here. A difficult time, for a lot of reasons, but he was here at that time and he was trying to get us through that.
Dave [Barram] came on board [1996 to 2000] and … his objective was we needed, No. 1, to identify ourselves, and No. 2, to become a lot more customer-centric than I think we were, and we worked at that. We did a lot of things that helped us to think better about ourselves and to realize we had a contribution to make and realize that we had customers and people we needed to serve. We realized that our reason for being was to serve those folks and we can do a great job in doing that if we felt positive about what we were doing.
Steve [Perry] came on board [2001 to present] and his goal, I think, is to say OK, the kind of soft stuff is going well, but now we need to harden things up in the sense of 'let's now look at how we hold each other accountable, how do we truly measure our performance.' Our mission, values and goals, looking at those and trying to work those is the legacy that I think he will leave.
On telecommuting in the federal workplace
Davis: The real key to telecommuting centers is the need. We started off here by building them, and saying they will come. Well, they didn't always come. There are some fundamental kinds of things that have to happen before telecommuting is going to become the true way that we would like to see it. One of these is that we, as managers, have to get to a point where we understand that we don't need to be putting our eyes on people to ensure they are getting their work done. We need to be measuring more by results. We ought to let folks work where they need to work to get the job done. Everybody can't telecommute, but many people can. I can spend the day at home sometimes and get more done than I can here. We have to figure that out, and we have to work on getting folks to understand that, and that will help us support our telecommuting centers.
On changes in the federal government
Davis: I think that the government itself has gotten a lot smarter and a lot more streamlined. When we had 44,000 people at GSA, I can tell you that 44,000 people weren't working. There were some folks who worked hard, but there were others who weren't. I think there is less of that today. I think we are more customer-focused, focused on trying to bring better government to the people, the taxpayer, than we were when I first came aboard. We're more concerned about how much it's costing to deliver government to people than we were before.
On GSA's future
Davis: I think that right now we are doing all of the things that would support our mission statement. There are some things that are going on elsewhere that I think ought to be included in GSA. The people who are doing functions that we do by statute…I think they should focus on their own knitting, and let us do what we do. Some agencies are doing some of the GWAC [governmentwide acquisition contracts] contracts and that's not their core mission. They could be focusing those resources on doing what they do.
I think that we have to get to a point where another agency … can look at GSA and rely on us to provide them with the administrative support that they need, and feel like they don't necessarily need to bring that support to the table themselves. I believe that most agencies have an internal GSA because they're not comfortable we're going to do it for them. A lot of it is the carryover from the days back when we didn't [do it for them].
We've spent the last 10, 12, 15 years, trying to convince agencies that we are truly turning ourselves around and moving in a different direction. If you've not done what you are supposed to do for a long time, it takes awhile to turn that around. And there are some agencies who we have been able to do that, for example, the Census Bureau. During the last census, they turned over almost all of their administrative functions to us, and they worried about the census and we worried about supporting them. We're looking for other opportunities to do the same thing because that gives the agency the chance to focus on what its core mission is, and leaves the administrative kind of functions that we think we can do well, to GSA.