Dan Tangherlini stepped down this week as the administrator of the General Services Administration. In his three-year tenure in that role, the agency has transformed itself from the aftermath of a scandal into a leader in technological innovation.
“I think the most important takeaway for me was just how incredibly talented, smart and hardworking, the GSA folks are, and how fundamental and important the GSA mission is,” he told In Depth with Francis Rose.. When Tangherlini arrived at GSA, the agency was reeling from a shake up in leadership as three senior leaders resigned in the wake of a scathing inspector general report about excessive spending at a Public Buildings Service conference in Las Vegas.
“When I came in in April of 2012, we were in a bit of an existential crisis,” he said. “There were more than a few people on the Hill who were saying maybe this should be the end of GSA. Maybe we should just get rid of it. It seems to create more problems than it solves.”
Over the last three years, though, Tangherlini said that he was pleased to have worked with people at GSA and on the Hill, along with support from the Obama administration, in showing how the agency can do things “once and well” in the federal government.
“I really credit senators and congressman from both sides of the aisle, while very, very angry about the circumstances that led to my coming here, actually giving us time to conduct the top to bottom review, actually giving us a forum to discuss the findings of the top to bottom review and then supporting us over and over again in our efforts subsequent to the work we did there to realign our staff, to dramatically reduce our administrative costs, to refocus around our core programs,” he said. “We’ve seen a big turnaround in the amount of resources we’re getting back into the Public Building Service program. It’s not as much as we think we need or as much as we think we could use to drive down the cost of government, but I have to say, if you look at the delta between 2012 and now, the President’s FY ’16 budget, it’s quite dramatic.”
One of the things Tangherlini is most proud of during the last three years is the data benchmarking initiative that GSA is leading with the Office of Management and Budget.
“What I’m excited about is that we’re going to go out and collect the second round of the part one benchmarks,” he said. “Those are the basic, fundamental questions about, what we call, the bigger than a breadbox metrics. How much does it cost to do finance operations in one agency versus the next?”
GSA and OMB have also launched the second phase of the benchmarking effort, which focuses on the quality and performance metrics.
“I still think we’re in the early days of this, but I also believe that this is the beginning of something truly transformative in the way we measure the basic, if you will, boiler room operations of the federal government,” Tangherlini said. “I believe that there’s a lot of opportunity for more efficiency there. There’s a huge opportunity for more effectiveness there. Those are resources that can be committed to modernizing those processes and dramatically improving mission outcomes.”
He praised OMB Deputy Director for Management Beth Cobert for rooting the benchmarking effort within the various chief officer councils and encouraging them to use it as a tool to identify best practices to help them do their jobs.
As a former CXO, Tangherlini recognizes that the only way to institutionalize something like this is to get buy-in from those involved.
“I’d say that 99 percent of everyone I’ve met within this work are really interested in finding better outcomes,” Tangerhlini said. “So, I think if people can see how they’re doing relative to other people, there’s a natural competitive spirit that’s going to align incentives and get people excited about it.”
Changing the way federal real estate is managed
Tangherlini also praised PBS Commissioner Norman Dong, saying that he would continue to provide consistency in how GSA manages the federal real estate footprint.
“I think we’ll see some consistency around the idea that real estate should be part of the strategic discussion about how do we deliver mission and how do we deliver outcomes,” Tangherlini said. “And I would say that we’re now able to do, in part because of the stronger connection between PBS and FAS (Federal Acquisition Service), and between PBS, FAS and OSIT (Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies) and this idea of leveraging technology to deliver services and outcomes. It’s allowed us to rethink the way we approach space.”
“What we want to do is encourage agencies to say, ‘Look, you need to start building your physical footprint to reflect the way you’re going to be delivering services for the next 10, 50 years,’ rather than saying, ‘Let me just go and render again the way we delivered those services the last 10 or 50 years,'” he said. “And a lot has changed. You reach into your pocket, you pull out that smartphone, that’s only 7-years old, and it’s dramatically changed the way people do everything they do in their personal lives. I keep challenging people in the government to say, ‘Have you changed the way you deliver your services in your agency as quickly as this has for you outside of your government service?’ We need space that supports that.”
A model for developing innovative digital services
Technology is another area that’s received a lot of attention under Tangherlini’s watch. 18F, GSA’s innovation lab, is the poster child for developing innovative digital services, acting as a model for other agencies to replicate in house.
“What we now have are agencies pulling service requests out of 18F, asking for advice, asking how they can be a better consumer of IT and digital services,” he said. “This is another one where I think the concerns of the industry might be missing actually in the benefit to the industry. What we want to do is demonstrate for agencies that IT investments, carefully done, thoughtfully done, done in an agile way, can actually have dramatic improvements in service delivery and outcome, which will then generate more interest in that kind of investment.”
Tangherlini sees this as just part of a larger effort to improve the delivery of services and the way people experience the federal government.
“I believe you’re going to see over the next two to five years a dramatic increase in improvement in quality of digital services in the federal government,” he said. “We’ve been talking about it for a long time, but people can see it and feel it in their personal lives, in their private lives, in their non-government work lives. I think people are really going to start seeing it in the government side.”
Helping this along will be the recent implementation of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) and the administration’s willingness to “nest” digital services within agencies.
“I think 18F will be a big part of that boiler room producing steam that’s going to make this stuff move forward,” Tangherlini said.