Fixing the GSA

Believing that government oversight committees can penetrate the darkness in the General Services Administration, an organization that has lost its way, and navigating without a compass or sextant, the Congress is at best rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  Real reform will require smart political leadership from the top.

Senator Boxer stated boldly in her committee's opening remarks that "[t]o those who betrayed the public trust, let me be clear -- the party is over."  Senator Inhof's opening statement in the same committee noted that "[w]e have an opportunity to restore the public's trust and make certain that federal agencies are acting in the best interest of the American people."  Like Bill Clinton's statement that "the era of big government is over," these are catchy phrases that inspire followers but usually result in mere incremental changes, if that.  The inherent causes are far too complex to be cured with a simple palliative.

There are several reasons to be concerned about the outcome of these investigations.

First is the size and scope of the problem.  There are over 12,000 GSA employees, and the GSA has been the object of similar past incidents (2) in the Carter administration, as well as two others during the recent Bush administration.  The stirring headlines over the GSA involvement in the Abramoff scandal hadn't yet died down when the 2010 Las Vegas extravaganza came to light.  Obviously, previous fixes didn't work.

Second, there's the questionable capability of the actors to fix an endemic problem.  Although both committees have staff, they are not equipped to comprehend the totality of issues that have been raised.  The inspector general, Brian Miller, testified that he saw this investigation as would a former prosecutor.  On several occasions, Miller deferred solutions to the acting GSA administrator, Dan Tangherini, who at that time had been in the job for only a couple of weeks, since April 2012.  Were it not for a whistle-blower inside the GSA (Deputy Administrator Susan Brita), perhaps no oversight committee would have ever known of the boondoggle.  The inspector general has 300 employees, of which few could have the skill sets required to address the causes and solutions of the blight on the agency.

Third, the sustainability of any concerted effort to implement a meaningful resolution to the root causes is problematic.  In his introductory remarks, House Committee Chairman Dan Issa asked why it took eleven months for the Obama administration to take meaningful action.  More time has now passed, and although actions taken to date are significant, they are superficial.

To date, the performance of the committees and the administrators has been somewhat perfunctory and pedestrian.  The usual suspects were summoned to appear and testify about their partial knowledge of root causes and solutions.  The results thus far are voluminous reports, testimony, and the promise of future committee hearings.

There will be an election in November, and the oversight committee memberships will change, nearly two years after the original event.  The handoff, if any, would be to a different group of people with a resulting loss of knowledge of anything learned previously.  A new administration might have other priorities and a weakened interest in this project.  Inertia would make it unlikely that any effort a new administration would initiate would be persistent enough to achieve significant results near-term.

Given these genuine constraints to accomplishing something more than rearranging deck chairs, what is the best one could hope for from the next administration?

If President Obama is to get a second term, he appears to principally want the authority to consolidate at least six agencies into the Commerce Department.  This has the appearance of addressing government efficiency and reducing needless jobs, but it could have the greater effect of giving him control over a variety of programs that would help him implement his agenda to regulate internal and external trade and commerce.  This would be a more credible objective were it not for the facts that Obama has shown little concern about deficit reduction, that his policies have stifled the economy, and that he waited three years to propose a plan to contain government growth.  It's too little, too late and not serious.

If Mitt Romney is given the opportunity to address these problems, he has said that he will pursue a radically different course, such as appointing firms like McKinsey or Boston Consulting Group to formulate strategies and programs.   These entities have the requisite knowledge, skills, and abilities to address organization structure and organization culture, assess individual and group performance, establish accountabilities, develop requisite competencies throughout the organization, and implement a comprehensive change program.  These are the essential elements of organization change technology that must be applied to organization effectiveness.  Promulgating a new policy and procedure manual, effecting stricter expense controls, managing by objectives, or implementing zero-based budgeting is not enough.

Experience has shown that people inside the organization cannot make these kinds of sweeping changes alone.  Ongoing demands of their jobs dilute their own efforts and time availability.  The longer a person is in an organization, the more he/she identifies with and accepts the norms and values of the organization.  Over time, people lose much of the objectivity they may have once had.  A new broom sweeps clean, and it is better to made radical changes early than to attempt incremental changes over time (i.e., make deep cuts first and reconstruct later).  There is a tendency for organizations to be "overtaken by events" such that action plans are compromised in order to satisfy the press of non-essential demands.  An external, dedicated change agent is more likely to stay the course and not bend to demands and expectations that are not mission-critical.

The challenges of size, complexity, self-governance, and sustainability inherent in the GSA wrongdoing call for a serious undertaking by the next administration.  This could be its hallmark and could signal the dawning of a new day in the stewardship of the peoples' resources.

Although government bureaucracies by nature may not be intended to be as efficient and bottom line-driven as a private organization would, the best option for fixing the GSA problem and restructuring the federal government is for Mitt Romney to make said restructuring a priority commitment of his first term.

The current attempts to reform the GSA have only hacked heads off the Hydra of government bureaucracy, leaving more to grow in their place.  Nothing less than a top-level, sustained effort of sufficient scope and commitment by the president can finally cauterize the wounds.  Leave the deck chairs alone.

Jay Partin, Ph.D. is managing director of the Diameter Group, Ltd., a management consulting firm.  He can be contacted at jpartin@diametergroup.com.

Believing that government oversight committees can penetrate the darkness in the General Services Administration, an organization that has lost its way, and navigating without a compass or sextant, the Congress is at best rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  Real reform will require smart political leadership from the top.

Senator Boxer stated boldly in her committee's opening remarks that "[t]o those who betrayed the public trust, let me be clear -- the party is over."  Senator Inhof's opening statement in the same committee noted that "[w]e have an opportunity to restore the public's trust and make certain that federal agencies are acting in the best interest of the American people."  Like Bill Clinton's statement that "the era of big government is over," these are catchy phrases that inspire followers but usually result in mere incremental changes, if that.  The inherent causes are far too complex to be cured with a simple palliative.

There are several reasons to be concerned about the outcome of these investigations.

First is the size and scope of the problem.  There are over 12,000 GSA employees, and the GSA has been the object of similar past incidents (2) in the Carter administration, as well as two others during the recent Bush administration.  The stirring headlines over the GSA involvement in the Abramoff scandal hadn't yet died down when the 2010 Las Vegas extravaganza came to light.  Obviously, previous fixes didn't work.

Second, there's the questionable capability of the actors to fix an endemic problem.  Although both committees have staff, they are not equipped to comprehend the totality of issues that have been raised.  The inspector general, Brian Miller, testified that he saw this investigation as would a former prosecutor.  On several occasions, Miller deferred solutions to the acting GSA administrator, Dan Tangherini, who at that time had been in the job for only a couple of weeks, since April 2012.  Were it not for a whistle-blower inside the GSA (Deputy Administrator Susan Brita), perhaps no oversight committee would have ever known of the boondoggle.  The inspector general has 300 employees, of which few could have the skill sets required to address the causes and solutions of the blight on the agency.

Third, the sustainability of any concerted effort to implement a meaningful resolution to the root causes is problematic.  In his introductory remarks, House Committee Chairman Dan Issa asked why it took eleven months for the Obama administration to take meaningful action.  More time has now passed, and although actions taken to date are significant, they are superficial.

To date, the performance of the committees and the administrators has been somewhat perfunctory and pedestrian.  The usual suspects were summoned to appear and testify about their partial knowledge of root causes and solutions.  The results thus far are voluminous reports, testimony, and the promise of future committee hearings.

There will be an election in November, and the oversight committee memberships will change, nearly two years after the original event.  The handoff, if any, would be to a different group of people with a resulting loss of knowledge of anything learned previously.  A new administration might have other priorities and a weakened interest in this project.  Inertia would make it unlikely that any effort a new administration would initiate would be persistent enough to achieve significant results near-term.

Given these genuine constraints to accomplishing something more than rearranging deck chairs, what is the best one could hope for from the next administration?

If President Obama is to get a second term, he appears to principally want the authority to consolidate at least six agencies into the Commerce Department.  This has the appearance of addressing government efficiency and reducing needless jobs, but it could have the greater effect of giving him control over a variety of programs that would help him implement his agenda to regulate internal and external trade and commerce.  This would be a more credible objective were it not for the facts that Obama has shown little concern about deficit reduction, that his policies have stifled the economy, and that he waited three years to propose a plan to contain government growth.  It's too little, too late and not serious.

If Mitt Romney is given the opportunity to address these problems, he has said that he will pursue a radically different course, such as appointing firms like McKinsey or Boston Consulting Group to formulate strategies and programs.   These entities have the requisite knowledge, skills, and abilities to address organization structure and organization culture, assess individual and group performance, establish accountabilities, develop requisite competencies throughout the organization, and implement a comprehensive change program.  These are the essential elements of organization change technology that must be applied to organization effectiveness.  Promulgating a new policy and procedure manual, effecting stricter expense controls, managing by objectives, or implementing zero-based budgeting is not enough.

Experience has shown that people inside the organization cannot make these kinds of sweeping changes alone.  Ongoing demands of their jobs dilute their own efforts and time availability.  The longer a person is in an organization, the more he/she identifies with and accepts the norms and values of the organization.  Over time, people lose much of the objectivity they may have once had.  A new broom sweeps clean, and it is better to made radical changes early than to attempt incremental changes over time (i.e., make deep cuts first and reconstruct later).  There is a tendency for organizations to be "overtaken by events" such that action plans are compromised in order to satisfy the press of non-essential demands.  An external, dedicated change agent is more likely to stay the course and not bend to demands and expectations that are not mission-critical.

The challenges of size, complexity, self-governance, and sustainability inherent in the GSA wrongdoing call for a serious undertaking by the next administration.  This could be its hallmark and could signal the dawning of a new day in the stewardship of the peoples' resources.

Although government bureaucracies by nature may not be intended to be as efficient and bottom line-driven as a private organization would, the best option for fixing the GSA problem and restructuring the federal government is for Mitt Romney to make said restructuring a priority commitment of his first term.

The current attempts to reform the GSA have only hacked heads off the Hydra of government bureaucracy, leaving more to grow in their place.  Nothing less than a top-level, sustained effort of sufficient scope and commitment by the president can finally cauterize the wounds.  Leave the deck chairs alone.

Jay Partin, Ph.D. is managing director of the Diameter Group, Ltd., a management consulting firm.  He can be contacted at jpartin@diametergroup.com.

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