In remembrance: Dennis Fischer

The longtime senior fed who served as chief financial officer of the General Services Administration and commissioner of the Federal Technology Service died last week at the age of 80.

Dennis Fischer, who served in key roles at the Department of Health and Human Services, the General Services Administration and in industry, died Sept. 24 in Southern California. He was 80 years old.  

Dennis Fischer

Dennis Fischer

By the time he retired in 2000 as commissioner of GSA's Federal Technology Service, he had spent 30 years in government, much of it in the financial realm of accountants and chief financial officers, but later in the burgeoning world of networks and information technology.  He won Federal 100 awards in 1992 and 2000.

In his post-government private-sector career, Fischer worked at Grant Thornton as director for government innovation and before that as vice president of Visa's USA sales and integrated solutions division.

"I worked with him in the early years when the then-Health Care Financing Administration (the forerunner of what is now CMS) was first created," said Alan Balutis, now senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems.

"There were multiple challenges then in bringing Medicare and Medicaid into a single organization.  Not just the myriad of management, financial, personnel, budgetary and other issues, but also the social and cultural issues of integrating what was viewed as an insurance program (Medicare, where the 'customers' were called 'beneficiaries') together with a welfare program (Medicaid, where they were 'recipients'). He was a superb manager and a financial expert, but his greatest gift was that he could partner with people to bring about change," Balutis said.

Bob Suda, who worked with Fischer for many years in financial groups and later at GSA, said: "He was all about customer experience even before customer experience was cool. He always said, 'Everyone is your customer.'"

During the National Performance Review, Fischer led a team focused on the Federal Travel Regulations and made numerous changes, including allowing federal employees to retain their airline mileage when they flew for work, Suda recalled.

Also, at GSA, Fischer helped drive the use of credit cards for government small purchases.

"Hard to think now about SF-44s, imprest funds and department forms that were then used for such activity," said Balutis. "But in that way, he was an example of what government is still trying to do today. Instead of tweaking or re-engineering existing ways of doing business, [he'd] throw them out, look to the commercial sector and install new and modern business practices and technologies."

"Dennis always said the numbers sang to him. He not only understood them from an accounting perspective, but more importantly from a business perspective," Suda recalled.

"In his presence, I called him 'the best bean counter I knew,'" said Robert J. Woods, a former FTS commissioner. "His creativity and understanding of the human element made him a leader as well as a financial giant."

Sandy Bates, who worked as Fischer's deputy at FTS and later succeeded him as commissioner, said that he understood how important people were to the success of the project.

Suda agreed. "He had a magical way about him that brought people together -- including getting everyone in the organization business cards (at a time it was not standard practice) so they would feel like they were part of the team."

Bates added, "He knew how the government worked and he followed the rules, but he wasn’t afraid to try something new, to innovate.  'Not all ideas are good,' he would say, 'but you have to have them and then try them out to know.'" Also, he was an early believer is the ‘fail fast’ philosophy: “Mistakes are OK,” he would say. “It means you are doing something.”

Balutis remembered: “If he liked you, or if you had done something good, he would say, 'You’re a great American!' I picked that up from him and have used it over the years myself. I say now in his passing, 'Dennis, you were a great American.'

Fischer will be interred at Miramar National Cemetery with full military honors in a private ceremony on Oct. 25. A public celebration of life ceremony in California is being planned, but the exact date and location have yet to be determined.

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