When Dan Tangherlini steps down Friday from his appointment as administrator of the General Services Administration, he will leave it one of the most modern and IT-forward agencies in the federal government.
While GSA wasn’t handed to him that way — it was, in fact, recovering from a hefty scandal — he spread his innovative touch agencywide since 2012, turning what was traditionally known as a federal asset manager and supplies distributor into the government’s largest non-defense IT acquisition marketplace. And after his departure, the trend to innovate will continue.
Tangherlini’s GSA revamp started with his 2012 top-to-bottom review, which would reveal across-the-board opportunities to fine-tune GSA, especially concerning IT. It became clear then that “IT isn’t an end in itself,” Tangherlini told FedScoop. “IT is an enabler.”
GSA began focusing on what it was good at and leveraging technology to get even better at those areas, like leveraging federal real estate data to drive building efficiencies. Things the agency wasn’t so good at, like financial services, it began to look to other agencies to help out, the administrator said.
“So we’ve been getting out of the work where we don’t think we have huge value to add and emphasizing the work where we do have value to add,” he said. “Technology just enables you to get better at that work by giving you more data and more information, providing the tools to do the analysis, and makes you more efficient.”
But, Tangherlini noted, technology isn’t just something you can throw money at and hope it works; you have to use it to connect your mission to your desired outcome, he said.
“And that seems pretty elementary, but go back and review almost any failed technology implementation and that’s really the bigger problem,” Tangherlini said. “People either hoped technology would get them to a better outcome that was ill-defined, or they defined the wrong outcome because they didn’t engage with their customers.”
GSA’s 18F champions this methodology, encouraging agencies to focus on the needs of their customers through agile development.
“We would argue that a big part of that is the process,” Tangherlini said, “replacing waterfall with agile and saying, ‘Let’s fail fast and fail small rather than fail slow and fail big,’ learn from those failures, go back and then continue to iterate toward something that’s ultimately a better product.”
When you walk around GSA’s headquarters at 1800 F St., it’s obvious how much more technologically advanced it is than many other federal buildings. And Tangherlini wasn’t modest when it came to showing it off. Many times when giving tours of the space, people were surprised by how modern it is and wondered if they’d offended the administrator in acting so.
Tangherlini said he was only offended “to the extent that I’m afraid people would think this isn’t how a federal office building should be or could be.”
Wi-Fi in the commercial world is nearing ubiquity, but at federal agencies it’s much the opposite. “I joke and I show people around from other agencies and we stop and we talk about laptops and Wi-Fi, and their mind is boggled,” Tangherlini said of the office space he’ll leave behind, noting how many agencies still depend on desktops and wired Internet connectivity.
In a way, GSA’s IT focus is as much about culture as it is efficiency. The American people have grown to expect a technological standard in everyday life that often doesn’t translate in the public sector. And if the federal government wants to compete with the private sector in recruiting a world-class workforce, it’s going to have to close the distance, the outgoing administrator argues.
“We still have to catch up, frankly, with the way people expect their ability to interact through technology with each other works in their private life, and we have to bring that into the professional life too. We have to close the gap that’s open between the way I bought holiday gifts this year,” Tangherlini said, gesturing to his smartphone, “and the way someone buys anything in the federal government. It couldn’t be more different. And it keeps getting more different.”
Federal buildings are only renovated every half century or so. So when the GSA headquarters received its recent makeover, Tangherlini took that as an opportunity to invest in innovation and the future workforce.
Instead of assigned cubicles in the GSA office space, there’s a completely unassigned, open layout. And that’s just for the employees who report to the office regularly, as GSA offers liberal telework policies.
The foward-looking design, centered around the hoteling of workspace, not only reduces GSA’s footprint, but it also encourages collaboration and the freedom of movement. And IT is the backbone of it all, allowing GSA workers to communicate and connect no matter where they are — at home, sitting in a coffee shop or sharing a space with a critical partner on a project.
During his GSA service, even Tangherlini ditched his 1,600-square-foot administrator’s suite for a desk in the open bullpen with the rest of his team.
“The last time we renovated the building was 1937,” Tangherlini said. “We have to think about how this space is going to be used for the next 50 or 60 years, not the way it’s been used for the last 50 or 60 years.”
The federal testbed
Because GSA is essentially one big acquisition vehicle to help other agencies get the space, utilities, supplies, technology and whatever else they may need to support their missions, the agency has begun to treat in-house IT development as a pilot opportunity.
Take GSA’s collaborative cloud-based email system. Many agencies don’t have a tool like that. But GSA, after successfully testing the system, offers to use its acquisition vehicles to help the other agencies procure it for themselves.
“So we’re working really hard to be kind of the testbed for some of these innovations and then be the one-to-many distributor of these,” the administrator said. “We don’t exist just to run GSA. GSA exists to provide services, to provide innovation, to provide technology, to provide the platform for government delivery to the rest of the government.”
Even Chief Information Officer Sonny Hashmi, whose main role is to lead GSA’s internal IT efforts, is thinking outside of the administration. Tangherlini said the CIO is “sharing the laboratory of innovation that GSA has turned itself into, in terms of technology and in terms of space, with his partners in other agencies.”
“We’re really interested in the idea of if something has worked here and agencies want it, that we can, using the [federal acquisition service] and the [assisted acquisition service] and other vehicles we have, get it to agencies and let them leverage it,” he said. “Maybe we’re the initial consumer, the tester, and if it’s going to fail or hurt anyone, it’ll start with us; we’ll learn what the issues are, we’ll work through security and IG concerns, and then if that product is time-tested and provable, what we’d like to do is make it available” to other agencies.
18F is taking this approach in the alpha cycle of its new
agile blanket purchase agreement.
That makes GSA’s mission a little bit more interesting.
“The great thing about this work is we get to work with everyone and we get to be part of everyone’s great mission, protecting the food supply, guarding the border, keeping planes a safe distance from each other, things we can all get behind,” Tangherlini said. “We really enjoy helping be the stage managers for the history that’s made by these agencies, these fantastic missions that deliver life-changing outcomes for the people we ultimately serve, the American people.”
“To make a long story short, 2015 will be a little boring in the sense that I don’t think you’re going to see many new strategic initiatives on the part of GSA,” Tangherlini said. “What you’re going to see is the next round of implementation on the strategies we’ve already laid out: better, more efficient, more modern and collaborative space; better, more efficient, more easily produced, more customer-focused IT; and better, more efficient, more transparent federal procurement.”
Of course Tangherlini will not be around to ensure these plans go accordingly. But in his absence, he believes soon-to-be Acting Administrator Denise Turner Roth will continue to innovate. When pressed on the matter, GSA officials maintained that the agency will continue along the same path Tangherlini laid out.
“I have every confidence that, with the same support you’ve shown me, she will be able to continue our progress,” Tangherlini wrote in his departure letter to staff.
Things like the Common Acquisition Platform and category management, 18F’s disruption of digital government, and the convergence of GSA’s efforts around data — all things that made headlines in 2014 — will continue ramp up even more this year, the administrator said, and IT will be even more crucial to enabling them.
“While we always had IT in the background as a way of enhancing efficiency, what you’ve seen over the last decade or two is that information technology digital services has really become a way for that platform to be extended even further in time and space,” Tangherlini said. “And so we really think of it like developing that third leg of the stool, providing more in the way of helping agencies achieve the great results of extending on to that platform. It feeds back across the whole system. So we’re going to continue to push hard into that area to provide better services, better outcomes and better opportunities for agencies, and then feed it back.”