Travel policy guru wraps up 33-year career with GSA

Signing off after 33 years at the General Services Administration, Bill Rivers leaves a legacy of winning travel policy.

Signing off after 33 years at the General Services Administration, Bill Rivers leaves a legacy of winning travel policy.

When Bill Rivers entered Georgetown University as an International Affairs major, he had plans to join the Foreign Service. By the time he graduated in 1970, Rivers preferred history and research-and Washington-to the Foreign Service. When he got the chance to become a trainee at the General Services Administration, Rivers leapt at it to stay in Washington.

"Frankly, at that time I didn't know what the General Services Administration was," says Rivers, who will end his federal career at that same agency on Jan. 2.

Rivers is now deputy director of the Office of Transportation and Personal Property at GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy. Before joining the Transportation Office in 1996, he spent 21 years with the fleet program and five years with the freight transportation arm of the agency. "I have two major careers within GSA; one is in the GSA Fleet Program, and one is in the Office of Governmentwide Policy," Rivers said in a recent interview with Government Executive, in which he shared some of the highlights of his career in travel policy.

On the challenges of crafting governmentwide travel policy:
The biggest challenges were trying to establish an effective per diem program and hotel contractor program.

The per diem rates impact not only the federal traveler, but the travel community, whether it's the properties out there or the restaurants. There is a very high level of interest and visibility and you have to make sure that you've got a fair and equitable system. It may not be something everyone agrees with, but as long as they all understand it they can at least appreciate how an answer was arrived at. That's one of the things that we have tried to do, is make sure that it's an open process-the industry knows what's going on, the travelers know what's going on-and that it's a consistent process. But it's one that's always going to be evolutionary because of market changes.

I think the travel arena is going to very much be influenced by the eTravel initiative. You look at it and say, 'OK, it's an electronic system,' but what is being done now is an end-to-end system. You can do your travel authorizations electronically, you can do your trips electronically, auditing can be electronic. [That] will allow much greater compliance with federal policies. You can monitor what's been done electronically. The database will allow much better negotiation by the federal community on car rentals, hotels and airlines. There are a lot of good things with eTravel.

On helping to create the Office of Governmentwide Policy:
The going in posture was that policy, as it related governmentwide to all agencies, had not received the recognition or the focus that it needed previously in GSA because most of the time it was combined with the operational elements. It was a challenge going in and setting up a new agency that had not existed before-how do you establish credibility, how do you get agencies to work with you?

I think it's grown into a great organization.

On changes to the GSA Fleet Program, which has grown from 60,000 vehicles to 185,000 vehicles in the past 30 years and provides vehicles for the Defense, Interior and Agriculture departments and other agencies:
I was fortunate to be part of a group that was able to get some legislative changes that set up a better funding basis for the GSA Fleet Program. That allowed the funding for the GSA Fleet Program to keep current with what their needs were. Also, we went to a three-year replacement cycle. Now it's solidly funded operation and a newer fleet. When we first started out . . . we called all the agency fleet managers together and we said, 'You tell us what we should be doing.' There was skepticism in the beginning and I think we won them over, probably one of the good indications of how that has gone is we created an organization called FedFleet, an interagency group that, in effect, is the board of directors for the federal fleet community. Not only are they working together, they now sponsor annual fleet conferences, they have local chapters throughout the country. If there is an issue, it automatically goes to the FedFleet community, rather than agencies trying to solve it on their own.

On his 33-year federal career:
I think there's a much higher quality workforce and work environment in the government than when I started in 1970. I think the level of professionalism is higher, I think the level of work activity is higher. I think it's become a much more active and interesting job than it was back then. The quality of employee has grown, just in terms of dedication, energy level and knowledge. The government is moving more and more toward operating as a business . . . more focused on making sure it's efficient and effective. The leadership has done a nice job. I've had the fortune of working for a number of good administrators in the past. I really like the last two--Dave Barram and Steve Perry-I think they set a nice tone for the agency in setting it on a business path. I consider it exceedingly fortunate to have, in effect, grown up in GSA. It's given me the opportunity to raise a family, the opportunity to do what I would like and I hope that I reciprocated in kind by doing the quality of work that GSA would like. It's been fun, I'm somebody who likes to have a good time, I want to enjoy the work I do, and I've been able to do that. It's good people and interesting work, considering I'd never heard of the organization before I joined it in 1970.