In 1935 a plain-speaking Missourian named Harry Truman made his way to Washington to serve in the Senate, beginning what was a remarkable career on the national political stage. Truman was famous for his no-nonsense management style and decisiveness. Perhaps the single phrase most associated with his leadership style is, “The Buck Stops Here,” captured in a sign that Truman kept on his desk in the White House.
Truman is also known for establishing the Hoover Commission that led to the creation of the General Services Administration. Nearly 90 years later, another Missourian in Washington who happens to lead the modern-day GSA, Administrator Robin Carnahan, needs to take a page from Truman’s playbook. She should tell Congress, agencies and her own workforce that when it comes to the recent controversy over the security standards of the Login.gov sign in service used by the public, the buck stops with her. And together with Federal Chief Information Officer Clare Martorana, the administrator should take ultimate responsibility for the operation of the Technology Modernization Board and associated fund that awarded Login.gov $187M in 2022.
This isn’t a “burn it down” column about the Login.gov program, the Technology Transformation Services team within GSA that runs the program, or the Technology Modernization Fund. I know the promise and the peril of a program like Login.gov, an organization like TTS, and a revolving fund like the TMF, having served as the commissioner of GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service from 2017 to 2019. In this role, I was responsible for carrying out the order to merge TTS into FAS and served as a founding member of the Technology Modernization Board that awards funding from the TMF.
The point of this column is to identify the right actions and the right messengers to explain the mistakes to overseers, calm the nerves of agency CIOs and rally the workforce at GSA. To date, only FAS Commissioner Sonny Hashmi has testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability. The GSA administrator and the Federal CIO need to take responsibility and engage in public acts of confidence building, or Login.gov, TTS and the TMF will continue facing scrutiny that may threaten their very existence.
Coming to terms with the congressional overseers means joint testimony by Carnahan and Martorana in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability. Hashmi made a good start, but only the top leaders can put the questions to rest fully by testifying with the lights on and the microphones hot.
The most worrisome development from the Login.gov fallout is the recent criticism leveled by agency CIOs at TTS and the sense of pressure reportedly felt by Technology Modernization Board members to approve questionable investments. The GSA administrator and the Federal CIO need to convene the CIO Council as quickly as possible and devote the meeting to addressing these issues. The message to agency CIOs should be twofold. First, TTS will focus on meeting customer needs in a cost recoverable fashion with a bias for helping agencies properly buy and deploy technology built by the private sector. Second, the members of the Technology Modernization Board will be guaranteed complete independence and freedom to level constructive criticism when evaluating potential investments — full stop.
To rally the workforce, the GSA administrator should borrow from the military and order leaders at all levels to conduct a one-day stand down in the next 30 days. The theme of the stand down should center on shared accountability and transparency with a reminder of just how important GSA’s mostly behind the scenes mission is to agency customers and the American people. Once the stand down exercise is complete, the administrator should hold an agencywide town hall to clearly articulate the lessons learned from the Login.gov failures, emphasize the good work happening across GSA and strike a note of heightened personal engagement in the agency’s day-to-day business.
Leaders eat last but go to the front of the line for criticism
The ultimate responsibility lies with the GSA administrator and the Federal CIO to restore confidence. The GSA administrator picked the top leaders at TTS, elevated the role of executive director of the TMF Program Management Office to a political appointee, and affirmed the GSA representative to the Technology Modernization Board. The Federal CIO is the leader of the Technology Modernization Board that provided Login.gov with the largest single award in the history of the TMF.
President Truman said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.” The reverse is also true when things don’t go as planned. That is, it is amazing what can go wrong when leaders don’t step forward to shoulder the blame and put forth a clear vision for getting back on track. The reputations of GSA and the TMF are on the line. No leader wants this sort of spotlight, but the road to recovery starts with taking responsibility in front of congressional overseers, agency customers and the GSA workforce. For Administrator Carnahan and Federal CIO Martorana, the buck stops with them.
Alan Thomas is the former commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service at the General Services Administration and the chief solutions officer at Leadership Connect. He served as a permanent member of the Technology Modernization Fund board from inception in March 2018 until October 2019.