Acting GSA Chief Impresses Senators As Agency’s Mr. Fix-It
After 14 months at the helm of the scandal-tarnished General Services Administration, Dan Tangherlini enjoyed a warm welcome from senators at his Tuesday confirmation hearing, delivering specifics on past and future cost savings in areas from conference planning, federal real estate and relationships with contractors.
“From my first day on the job, I have worked with the women and men of GSA to restore the trust of the American people and to ensure that the agency provides them with the highest quality of public service,” said Tangherlini, who was brought over from his post as the Treasury Department’s chief financial officer in April 2012 after the resignation of Martha Johnson, following revelations of lavish spending at a 2010 training conference in Las Vegas. “We have made real progress at a time when the mission of our agency has never been more important.”
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, noted that GSA has had eight different leaders in eight years, all but two of them acting. “Last spring a crisis unfolded at the General Services Administration when a report of the GSA inspector general detailed the reckless, wasteful -- and in some instances, illegal -- spending of some employees of GSA’s Public Buildings Service at a lavish conference. … Unfortunately, this particular conference was not an isolated instance of bad judgment,” he said. “These scandals all shook the trust of Congress in GSA -- the very agency whose primary purpose is to make our federal government more efficient and more frugal in spending taxpayer dollars.”
Carper said, “GSA deserves a leader who understands the complexity of these management challenges and who can work well with the heads of other agencies to help them meet their needs. I think they have such a leader now in Dan Tangherlini and that he deserves confirmation.”
Ranking Member Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., also announced his support, imploring Tangherlini to “communicate with us on progress.” He recalled meeting with Carper on GSA eight years ago, and said, “Nothing happened in those eight years.”
Tangherlini introduced his family, calling his father, a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, his inspiration for public service.
Accomplishments at GSA, the acting administrator said, include a 64 percent reduction in bonuses agencywide, consolidation of redundant management positions to save $200 million over the next 10 years and an office space reorganization that has saved $24 million in annual lease payments.
Carper expressed frustration at the process for disposing of excess federal real estate, noting that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently expanded his headquarters on the assumption of a rise in nuclear plant construction, only to see staff numbers fall when the expansion didn’t materialize. He mentioned that advocates for the homeless -- who by law have a first claim on unneeded federal buildings -- are fearful of innovations in the policy and seldom take advantage of it.
Tangherlini replied that the “three ingredients needed in Washington -- a bill from the administration, the House and the Senate” -- are in place for reforming the property sales process. “We all share the view that we need to fully utilize assets and dispose of them more quickly,” he said. “But the process is complicated, and you want to check with all agencies before you lose the facility to be sure they won’t need it.” He said GSA continues to work on the White House-proposed legislation for a civilian property disposal board, and has been experimenting with leasing and exchange authority at a NASA facility in Northern California.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., expressed concern about a recent GSA inspector general report showing that managers had interfered and pressured contracting officers in a trio of information technology contracts. To save money, “we want [contracting officers] to feel empowered, and we want to change the culture,” she said.
Tangherlini said he’s already taken personnel action against one individual and is “concerned more about the broader issue of whether [the officers] are given enough control, authority and support.” On arrival at GSA, he and the IG sent a joint letter asking employees to report misconduct, and he sent another letter more recently on the contracting officers. “We try to build a sense that the entire organization has each other’s back in getting to the investments needed to achieve goals,” he said.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., raised questions about GSA’s troubled “System for Award Management,” an effort at creating a single-portal vendor database on cost, prices and scopes that the senator called “worthless.” Tangherlini said it had been a mistake to house the project in GSA’s Office of Governmentwide Policy, and it has since been moved to the Federal Acquisition Service. He promised a new analysis this summer, to which McCaskill said that “in three years, that will be the whip cream and cherry on your sundae.”
McCaskill congratulated Tangherlini for “swimming upstream” and ending an era in which “everyone at GSA gets a bonus,” saying, “that probably didn’t make you the most popular guy.”
She also asked Tangherlini about GSA’s push for strategic sourcing of such purchases as office supplies, information technology systems and janitorial services. The Government Accountability Office says it could save $13 billion, though only 5 percent of agencies are using it, compared with 90 percent of the private sector, the senator said.
“We’ve been talking to large companies in Silicon Valley, and it’s clear that the high-quality ones focus on scale and scope, to buy once,” Tangherlini said. Governmentwide, strategic sourcing has saved $300 million in the past three years, and that, he added, “is just the tip of the iceberg.”