GSA chief speaks on employee morale, agency flaws

General Services Administration employees “would have to be other-than-human if they didn’t feel bad” about this year’s scandal involving agency overspending at a Las Vegas training conference, acting GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini told a town hall audience of information technology contractors on Tuesday.

“The Western Regional Conference has not done a lot for morale and it’s been hard to change the ways we expect to do business,” he said.

But the episode that forced the departure of his predecessor and several executives of GSA’s Public Buildings Service also has “brought a real positivity, an opportunity to stop and self-assess,” he added. “I admire the skills and courage of GSA employees to change the way they work and to bring more value to the taxpayers. I’ve also seen a lot of excitement and enthusiasm.”

Speaking at a McLean, Va., industry meeting, sponsored by the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council and TechAmerica, Tangherlini also addressed the sensitive issue of when to spend dollars on travel and conferences that employees throughout government face. “If a conference is mission-critical and relevant to your project, then go do it,” he said. “But if you’ve been to the same conference every year, perhaps you stop and think of whether there’s a strong business case for going.”

Tangherlini asked the private sector specialists to help GSA modernize and use IT to economize, noting “the speed of change in IT can outpace the GSA schedules.” He described the agency’s recent internal Great Ideas Hunt, for which employees produced 500 “meaty, consequential ideas” for improvements and thousands of comments on GSA’s enterprisewide software.

He said using IT to trim costs and achieve greater efficiency “is just a start” as GSA strives to use its newly renovated headquarters as a tool for removing stovepipes and boosting internal collaboration.

“It can be incredibly hard to do business with GSA -- I know, I was a customer,” he said, referring to his previous post as chief financial officer at the Treasury Department. “There is frustration in having to untangle the Web of procurement procedures and many silos in GSA organization that impeded [outsiders]”. He said there is duplication, mission creep and “an unwillingess to adopt shared services, to buy what we’re selling other agencies.”

Noting that governmentwide, the public sector continues to lag private organizations in productivity, he invited industry ideas on how both sectors can be mutually successful.

Tangherlini spoke proudly of GSA’s progress in achieving greater efficiency in numerous areas, including the recent modernization of its multiple award schedules to better reflect market demand; reduction of agency overhead expenses; new cost-saving travel services for other agencies; telecommunications efficiencies, such as moving data to the cloud; consolidation of federal data centers, disposal of excess federal property; adoption of the USA Search tool to ease public access to government websites; “significant IT management reform” in consultation with federal chief information officer Steven VanRoekel; and improved popular access to GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies.

When he began his job under sad circumstances in April, Tangherlini said, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., told him, “Whatever you’re thinking, think bigger.” He said the conference spending scandal “heightened our obligation” to deliver value for the taxpayer” while the current budget constraints will “force us to be smarter.”

A continuous top-to-bottom review of GSA for him, he added, would be a good legacy.

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