Looking past November to chart GSA’s future

Changes in the contracting landscape over the years suggest a series of questions the General Services Administration’s leaders should be addressing, writes consultant Frank McDonough.

Frank McDonough 180

The General Services Administration has a treasure trove of special skills and knowledge not available elsewhere in the government. But in many ways, GSA has been treading water. After the upcoming presidential election, it will be time for the agency to position itself for the next decade.

GSA is not immune to broader societal changes, and it has reorganized and consolidated many times since Congress created it in 1949. Its workforce has declined 70 percent in 31 years — from 42,000 employees in 1980 to 12,600 in 2011 — and yet GSA still allows agencies to acquire the goods, services and office space they need quickly and at a good price.

However, the conditions that led to its formation 63 years ago are much different today. For example, there are few negotiated contracts in the government now. Ninety-five percent of contracting is simply order taking due to schedules and indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts.

As a result, the government as a whole might no longer need its army of 30,000 contract specialists and 3,000 purchasing agents and should consider reversing the balance between contract specialists and purchasing agents at all agencies.

And for all its changes, GSA’s workforce is highly compartmentalized and too often frustrated and unhappy.

Those conditions suggest a series of questions GSA leaders should be addressing, including:

  • Which GSA jobs have become more complex because technology demands higher skills? Which jobs have become less complex although their official position descriptions still require high-level skills?
  • What skills does GSA need to develop to thrive in the networking age?
  • What functions should GSA perform for agencies in five to 10 years? Which current functions should be consolidated, minimized or dropped entirely?
  • How could GSA use the Semantic Web and data-mining tools such as the Domain Awareness System jointly developed by the New York City Police Department and Microsoft to retrieve and display information from multiple sources?
  • How can GSA make the best use of all its talented employees, down to the GS-7 level?
  • Would it be possible to flatten some management levels at GSA?
  • How can GSA become an agency without boundaries and create an environment in which creativity, innovation and flexibility are encouraged?
  • How can GSA make the best use of emerging digital tools and enhance younger employees’ ability to think, learn, communicate, solve problems and in general be more creative than previous generations?

To respond to those challenges, GSA leaders should:

  1. Announce they are committed to moving GSA into the future.
  2. Employ two futurists to discuss the emerging trends in governance and technology.
  3. Rely on collective intelligence and crowdsourcing by organizing brainstorming teams based on age, not grade level, to develop answers to questions and vote on the top five ideas put forward by each team.
  4. Establish an implementation team with a two-year deadline to work with line managers and implement the changes recommended by the brainstorming teams. The implementation team should have the power to influence the performance ratings of line managers.

The government needs one organization to be an early adopter of the opportunities presented by the macro trends and transitions occurring in American society. With re-energized leadership after the election, GSA could set an example for the rest of government — and for other governments around the world.