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Lawmakers Worry GSA's Reorganization Politicizes Buying

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. // J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The technology purchasing hub for the federal government has undergone a major restructuring under President Donald Trump, and some lawmakers are concerned the reorganization might politicize buying.

The General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Service—which includes digital consultancy 18F, the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, and the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technology—is now part of the Federal Acquisition Service to serve the newly created White House Office of American Innovation, according to GSA.

“By placing all of the offices focused on government modernization into one organization, GSA will be better able to leverage its expertise and assets in support of the White House and its Office of American Innovation,” GSA Acting Administrator Tim Horne wrote in a press statement last month.

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That reorganization also replaced FAS Commissioner Tom Sharpe, a career employee who had served in that role since 2012, with Alan Thomas, a political appointee. In Wednesday's House oversight hearing, lawmakers asked Thomas and TTS head Rob Cook how they planned to encourage agencies to take technological risks, among other questions. Here's what you need to know about the reorganization: 

Cook doesn’t think the reorganization will change TTS much, day-to-day.

Asked at a recent DATA Act event how being grouped with FAS could change his role, Cook said the reorganization was mostly for technical reasons because authorities and funding come from that group. Becoming a formal part of FAS would make that relationship easier and “better internally,” he said then.

Lawmakers are worried about what Thomas’ appointment might mean for conflicts of interest.

In the past, FAS has been led by career employees to  "ensure that political considerations were not involved in the federal acquisitions process," Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said in prepared opening remarks. FAS handles buying of technology and telecommunications services; Connolly also referenced Trump’s financial relationship with GSA, which determined the Trump Organization could lease the Old Post Office Building for its hotel despite his being an elected official.

"It is downright frightening under this administration, President Trump has the ability to fire the FAS commissioner at the same time he has pending business at GSA," he said.

Lumping TTS in with FAS doesn’t solve any management issues such as the use of the Acquisition Service Fund for 18F projects, overall financial losses, or any instances in which the tech team disregarded security policies, Connolly noted.

Joining the two groups raises the stakes for FAS and TTS, Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., said in her remarks.

"We need an FAS commissioner who can rise above the political volatility of our current moment and remain completely and totally independent," she said.

Cook thinks 18F’s short-term hiring model works.

The TTS component hires technology professionals from the private sector, often from commercial companies such as Twitter and Facebook, for short-term stints instead of asking them to stay long term.

During the hearing, Cook defended the practice to the committee. TTS and 18F won’t be able to solve major federal technology problems, and solve them more efficiently than they have been in the past, “unless we have top tech talent inside government,” he said. A few people are interested in government long-term, but “a lot more have private-sector careers and they don’t necessarily want a lifetime career in government.”

Both Cook and Thomas said they want agencies to raise their appetites for risk, especially when it comes to technology.

Asked by Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., how they planned to combat a culture of risk-aversion in buying, Thomas said he hoped to "not necessarily punish them when they make a mistake." Cook noted embracing new technology might also help reduce that aversion. 

Thomas, just 12 days into his appointment, also said his team is working to make it easier for vendors to get on GSA schedules, including Schedule 70, which handles IT services.

"It's definitely a priority for me," he said.

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