Denise Turner Roth

Denise Turner Roth GSA via YouTube

GSA Nominee Roth, on Open Office Space, Morale and Her 3 Highest Priorities

Roth says she "absolutely" believes in the open layout.

One day after her nomination, acting General Services Administration chief Denise Turner Roth spelled out her three key priorities should she be confirmed  to lead the government’s “landlord” in its quest for greater internal and governmentwide efficiency, and weighed in on workforce issues including employee morale and open office layouts.

In an interview with Government Executive last week, Roth, a former congressional staffer and city manager in North Carolina, said her No. 1 priority is “reform of the agency reporting structure, the consolidation effort at operational efficiency and the sustainability of those activities.”

Second on her list is “proactive partnerships” with agencies, in which GSA plans to use those agencies’ “data and knowledge to identify and improve operational opportunities for costs savings and mission delivery.” Particularly important is the use of technology to manage government assets, she said.

Third is enhancing GSA’s role as an “economic catalyst” around the country, Roth said. She cited examples in the nation’s capital: the recent revitalization of the NOMA area (North of Massachusetts Ave. NW), home to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the revitalization of the Southwest waterfront, home to a new Transportation Department building; and ambitious plans for remaking Federal Triangle South. “We want to be strategic whether we own property or lease,” Roth said.

The agency’s next big decision will be locating the new FBI headquarters. “A draft Environmental Impact Statement will go out this fall, and we will receive a recommendation soon on what the market will provide in exchange” for the J. Edgar Hoover building, which is considered too small and technologically obsolete for the FBI, though it sits on prime Washington real estate. The rivalry between the Virginia and Maryland congressional delegations hoping to land the FBI, Roth noted, does not deter GSA from remaining “impartial.” She added:  "GSA is one of the more apolitical agencies, where we focus on efficiency and meeting the needs of our customers.”

Roth, who worked for a year alongside Administrator Dan Tangherlini before his departure in February, keeps in touch with him at his new job as chief operating officer of Artemis Real Estate Partners, a Washington private equity firm. “Dan did tremendous work to ensure the agency was moving forward with reforms as anticipated,” said Roth, who has not consulted with earlier GSA administrators.

She occupies Tangherlini’s former cubicle in the open-office layout of GSA’s refurbished F Street Northwest headquarters. (She conducted the phone interview from one of the private “shared meeting places” that all employees may borrow.)

“I absolutely believe in [the open layout], which reduces square footage so people are able to be efficient” by relying on telecommuting and mobile devices, Roth said. People work differently, so the layout strives for “the right workspace for the right work,” and “democratizes light and private space. People don’t have to be at a certain level for what we call ‘head-down space,’ or quiet time, so how much time people actually spend at their desks becomes less relevant.”

Other agencies are also finding success with the open workspace, Roth said, pointing to the Commerce Department.

GSA will continue its central role on a multi-agency team in the Obama administration’s push for wider use of shared services, to move beyond existing arrangements in joint purchasing of office supplies. “Any work we do to collaborate and consolidate how we provide services is going to mean greater efficiency, cost savings and faster delivery,” Roth said, “but we’re still in the process of working out how the governance structure works.”

A promising GSA venture is the 18F program staffed by IT specialists who help other agencies be agile in “making large technology purchases and give agencies a chance to test and explore what they need to buy, to make sure what they buy is reflective of what they need,” she said. With the White House, the 18F team is making progress designing MyUSA, an effect to provide a single online portal for Americans to access government services.

Asked about ongoing congressional criticism that GSA has been slow to sell off the government’s excess property, Roth said she would “make sure we have strategic national portfolio planning of owned space or space available for disposal, and are being transparent about what’s available from the public perspective.”

The crackdown on travel to conferences—instigated by the White House under pressure from Congress after the 2012 scandal over lavish spending at a Las Vegas GSA training conference—does not seem overwrought to Roth. “It was important for us as an agency to pause and understand how we were operating. Now we have better transparency on management and provide reports on conference activity to [Capitol] Hill, which is important for every agency,” she said. “The plan in place allows people to travel to mission-related activities, so we feel confident moving forward.”

GSA morale, most likely, could only rise after the flap over the conference abuses of a few in the Public Buildings Service. “What’s important for individuals who work here, if they’ve worked here a long time, is to demonstrate that they can help our partner agencies be successful,” Roth said. “If we focus on the mission of GSA and make sure the resources are going to the mission, everyone will feel positive. “

Roth’s nomination drew praise from Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “Roth knows the ins and outs of the agency,” he said in a statement Friday. "She comes highly regarded by her colleagues, including her predecessor, and I look forward to talking with Ms. Roth about her plans to continue the agency’s progress to reduce the federal government’s real estate footprint, save money in federal contracting, and expand the agency’s ability to offer innovative information technology solutions across the federal government.”

In a statement to Government Executive, Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said, “I look forward to receiving Ms. Roth’s nomination and moving it forward as quickly as possible.”