Judith Zawatsky talks to Nextgov about her time at the General Services Administration and how building government services has changed over the years.
Judith Zawatsky, the head of the General Services Administration’s Integrated Award Environment—the effort to combine all acquisition support sites under a single portal at SAM.gov—wrapped a 15-year career in government this week.
Zawatsky started her government career as a contractor, then full-time GSA employee, ultimately leaving public service as the assistant commissioner for the office of systems management in the Federal Acquisition Service.
As she moves to a new role at research firm Gartner, Zawatsky spoke with Nextgov about her time in government, how user expectations have changed and how service delivery has evolved.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nextgov: How did you get into public service? What was your road to get to where you are now and what have you learned during your time in government?
Zawatsky: I worked for several architectural and engineering firms, and worked with the Department of Justice and [GSA’s Public Building Service] working on security concerns and building issues, post [the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City]. I was actually the technical editor on the recommendations for physical security for federal buildings.
Nextgov: That was a major turning point for federal employees in many ways. The new security measures also meant that citizens no longer had free access to many federal buildings. Much of your recent work has focused on engaging users to improve customer experience—how has that engagement changed over the years as physical security increased?
Zawatsky: Two years ago, before the pandemic, you could walk into a Social Security office and see an individual. You could talk to a person and there was no glass barrier and didn't have to go through this level of security that I did in order to get into the Pentagon or even into a GSA building. And in a GSA building, it's always how do you create risk tolerances?
I think the same is true in technology: some of the data has to be protected to protect both the government and the people doing business with the government. Whether or not that's procurement sensitive data, where that's [personally identifiable information] data. The risk tolerance for that is very, very tight.
But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't give people access to enter through the systems.
So we've worked over the last few years to improve the ability of the public and people doing business with the government and companies doing business with the government to make that experience easier, more intuitive.
That does not in any way compromise what we have to do on the back end to secure certain types of data.
Nextgov: So, moving on through your career, what did you do after you were involved in that security report and those things?
Zawatsky: I moved over to commercial contracting, from architectural and engineering to what you would typically think of the Multiple Award Schedules and now FAS. I did a lot of consulting for a couple of different firms over the years.
I came into GSA for two years, I didn't think I was going to stay actually. Jeff Koses [currently a senior procurement executive at GSA] hired me to come in and to work on policy and process improvement for the Multiple Award Schedules.
Jeff really saw the advantage of bringing the industry perspective to the table even before we knew words like “persona” and “focus groups” and things like that. I came in as that voice.
Nextgov: So, before that was a discipline, how were you doing it? Especially as federal buildings were getting more locked down and without some of the collaboration technology tools we have today.
Zawatsky: We walked [through] the process of contracting officials across FAS in doing their contracts: What was causing delays in time? What were the standards for starting the clock on cycle time?
I remember there was an executive at the time who gave the example, “The clock for industry begins when they start the process, not when the contracting official says they start the process.”
Just like when you bring your car into the shop to be fixed. The clock doesn't start when the mechanic gets the part; the clock starts when you drop off your car.
Nextgov: Arguably, it starts when your car breaks down.
Zawatsky: You're right. But the part that can hold you accountable [starts when you bring your car to the shop].
It was a matter of some cultural change and understanding and helping people understand that the user—the contractors—their clock started then, and not when a contracting officials workload allowed them to.
We also brought in people from industry—whether or not they were doing it themselves or they were using consulting firms—and did surveys and interviews to understand tolerances.
We've learned what everybody ultimately learns: that consistency is important, communication is important, and transparency is important. Often the cycle time is not as important as the ability to understand where I am in the cycle time or how to get help.
So, the challenge that we've taken on is to be able to design with all of those different types of personalities and experiences. It means really balancing those.
Sometimes one of those voices can get very, very loud. In the beginning, we would build to that voice. We've learned over the years that we really need to have all the voices at the table.
Nextgov: Do you have any advice there? How do you go out and find those people who will offer other perspectives? What are some of your tricks for finding those quieter voices and getting them to the table?
Zawatsky: If we put out a call, we work with the agencies and the governance to ask them to bring people to the table.
We've used the [Procurement Technical Assistance Centers] as enormous force multipliers. They know what small businesses understand and don't understand. They've been really great partners in the process and helping us make sure that we're not just talking to the big businesses.
We've used organizations like the Federal Demonstration Partnership that reaches the educational institutions. We do a lot of presenting through organizations like that.
We have tens of thousands who subscribe to our Interact posts.
The last time I checked, the registered population in SAM was equivalent to the 10th largest city in the United States.
Nextgov: You're the mayor of Samgov.
Zawatsky: I am the mayor of Samgov.
I think the other thing is you have to be very open. So, let's say you do a focus group and there's 20 people who participate but you realize that five have been silent. You have to follow up with them and you have to do individual interviews with them.
It's an investment in time, it's an investment in effort. And now I know that, since the integration, we have even more data on how people are using the systems, where they're getting stuck, where they're going, where they are in the system, when they're lagging and maybe not completing it as fast.
Nextgov: You mentioned those early days of UX before UX was a thing. You all were doing a lot of what you're doing now, right? Now it's more codified, and there are terms and there are processes and buzzwords; but it sounds like a lot of the work was similar. What's different? What's changed over the last 15 years in how you measure user experience?
Zawatsky: I would say culturally, my experience with the government was, years ago, the attitude was, “This is government, we’ll tell you”—“you” being the citizen, “you” being the user, “you” being the contractor or grant recipient—"jump through our hoops. And if you do so successfully, you're on your way.”
Culturally, there has been a maturity to say just because we're mandated does not mean that we get to say we don't have to take [into account] customer experience or user experience.
To some degree, it's been the citizen that has brought it forward and say, “I expect this experience in everything that I do,” and that's driven it. It's also been driven, I think, by people from private sector coming into government, whether or not it's my colleagues from [Technology Transformation Services] or [U.S. Digital Service] or in other areas coming to government, and saying, “Why not?” Turning that paradigm upside down and saying, “Why can't we bring those sort of ethics and priorities of private sector technology to the citizen experience in the government?”
The second thing is the the investment in time and investments financially in resources: bringing designers into the process, allowing for enough time. In order to do IT or citizen services, it means moving to the left and taking that pause and that moment and saying, “What does the user need?”
That's an investment in resources. It's getting the right team to the table. As you develop the skills and the maturity to do it, then you have a cadre of people, you have the skills and the rest of it.
There is really an understanding that you have to bring designers to the table, you have to give time for users to give input—not just testing feedback.
Nextgov: As you leave and hand off the work at IAE and SAM.gov consolidation, what will it take for that ultimately to be a successful program? What needs to happen over the next few years for you to look back and say that effort achieved its goal?
Zawatsky: Over the last three years, we have really sped up the definition of success. To allow a user explicitly—whether or not they’re a federal user—to have a workspace.
We do know that there are legacy systems that we would like to continue to move in there. As it has grown and as our understanding in the government for data and the use of data and the transparency of data and the power of data, I’m not sure that the definition of success is still putting legacy systems under one umbrella.
I think the definition of success is in enabling the use of the data to make good decisions. If that’s good decisions on how to improve the experience iteratively and more; if that’s good decisions on what legacy process should move in, as the data becomes more accessible from a technology standpoints, bringing in machine learning or [artificial intelligence] to be used on that data for government choices or private sector choices. I think that’s success: how we talk about how data is being used.