The General Services Administration is undergoing something of a transformation, you might say. As agencies demand more access to new technologies, GSA is expanding the type of companies that can compete for federal business. As they demand more flexibility, GSA is encouraging agile development. And as agencies demand greater understanding of their own requirements, GSA is gathering teams of experts.

GSA Administrator Denise Turner Roth told Editor Jill Aitoro that federal government is entering a new era of purchasing, and what's worked for decades past no longer melds with the requirements of today. GSA is adapting, she said, and no changes happen in a vacuum.

You said recently, 'we are in a different stage. We need to get to a different place.' Can you explain what you mean by that?

I think we are in a different stage in government. We have an American public that is used to being able to get what they need overnight, get what they need easy, and be able to answer their questions without having to work through five layers of people. We have an expectation to provide the same or more services at a cheaper cost or with a less cost to the American public. There is a general sense that there needs to be a great transparency. Not only demonstrating the outcome; but what are you doing with what you have?

We need to respond as a government. We need to respond, GSA, as an agency. All of the work that you see us doing across the agency, I think is reflective of that. Us listening to our customers more, and us ensuring that the products that we provide [are] actually meeting a defined solution.

A lot of changes have been happening in how acquisition are managed. Talk to me about that.

It has been a really interesting and evolving effort. I think that we know ultimately that category management was the right direction and the right way to go in terms of managing spend. But the real question was how do we get there? Do we go in one fell swoop? Do we go in steps? That has been one of the key pieces that I have been able to watch from my vantage point. Coming in as head of GSA and really thinking about how do we set up the agency for success in the future?

We have realized that we are on a path of category management in which all spend really needs to have a clear manager and owner, and have experts that are committed to understanding not only where the opportunities are today, but where the market is going in the future, and respond to that. We knew that we needed to [be] organized in that fashion. As you look internal to GSA, we have made quite a bit of changes in terms of aligning our staff from a category management perspective as well. It has been very exciting.

See our special report: 50 Years of Government Change

Over the years, I have heard so much about an inadequate acquisition workforce in terms of numbers. Does this show that the real need is getting the right people in the room together?

The goal is really to use the resources that we have in people and knowledge; and bring it together in a way that is consistent and overlaps well. We can be able to improve on that knowledge ultimately. I always say that there is this range of work that we ask contracting officers to do. They do anything from a science contract to a contract to acquire pens. And they can do that in the same day.

If you really want someone to be really good at something and really get the most out of it, I think you give them the time and energy to really focus in on a specific area. Sometimes it is a matter of needing to broaden the base of people or activity that you have doing the same thing. Sometimes it is a matter of deepening the expertise. That is what we are doing with category managers. We are going deeper. We are taking the resources that we have and making them work for us at a stronger level.

It is almost cyclical, with centralized buying through a GSA transitioning to agencies managing their own purchases. Where do you think we are going?

In terms of what we see with other agencies, we have seen them reacting to [the question], are they getting the products that they need? Do they feel that they have access to the acquisition platforms that they needed? In response, they started to develop their own. That is not efficient for government. But ultimately, having managers or people who are really responsible for a certain type of spend, strategically placed across government, I think is going to be of great benefit. I do not know that we will see a future in which all of the spending activity is centralized in one agency, GSA or any other. But I do think that we will continue to see certain experts owning certain types of spending. NASA will always have some level of NASA SEWP. But the majority of the spending does come through us. The stronger we are in terms of being transparent and providing better information about pricing, and the better information about spend activity and research around the market, you will see more agencies willing to give up their contracts.

Are you getting a positive response from agencies in terms of that transition? Is there a sense of ownership that they don't want to give up?

Sometimes, it is cultural in terms of agencies not wanting to give up ownership of what they have been doing for so long. But I think also we see some leaders who are wondering, why do they do this work? Their mission is otherwise. Their mission is housing. Their mission is building spaceships. Their mission is something other than providing for contracts. Where we are able to help provide a platform, we do. For some people, it is going to be just a little bit. They will give us part of their work. But they will still do the scoping. For others, we will do it from beginning to end. It will vary. But I think we have to be prepared to provide support in all fashions.

You will hear a lot of people say the Federal Acquisition Regulation needs to change. The FAR is too long. The FAR is too restrictive. Is the issue with the FAR, or is it more in the interpretation?

I think that it is fair to probably say both. I would think that there is a lot that has been said over time in terms of really the interpretation, in that the FAR really gives us opportunities that we are not taking advantage of. Even looking at why we just have chosen not to do something. It is very important for us to be able to grow.

Getting legislation passed is a difficult and long effort. In some ways, it should be. We need to understand the tools that we have and make sure the application fits for today.

Is there one piece of legislation that you feel was most essential or profound in terms of how acquisitions are managed?

I have been reading [to get] an understanding of how [the GSA Schedules program] came about. We spend so much time with mass transformation these days. Ultimately, if you look just at the purity of the understanding 60-some years ago, there was this opportunity if we consolidated all of the spending and buying activity, and made it easier for everyone to get the same products under something that was already spelled out, where the terms and conditions were already outlined and already negotiated. Just the creativity that was there at that time and even today. We are not talking about changing the fundamentals of that. I think that was an important time. That which allowed for us to rationalize acquisitions in that fashion, I think it was very transformative.

What do you hope to come out of those efforts, in terms of a broader impact for acquisition?

I am not sure if everyone sees how strategic and focused this effort is. When we look at category management and [Multiple Award Schedules] transformation, and some of the new products that are coming out – this isn't just ideas that came up. There was an overall understanding that our customers were demanding something different. The market was in a different place. That we had new technologies we could take advantage of. Bringing all of those together has really spelled out this strategy. It can seem from afar that we are coming out with this new thing this week or this month. But it really is a part of a larger strategy.

My hope is that we are willing to test how we pursue products more and delivery to the other federal agencies overall. That we are willing to be more agile in how we allow for those technologies to come to the government space. I think that if you talk to some of the industry members, they will say that there are a lot of products that they could provide that government needs. They do not have a way to bring it to the forefront. They can deliver it for one agency. But they could do it for so many others, for so many that are struggling with the same challenges. We do not have a good platform for those things to come forward. I really think that with our acquisition workforce and with [the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act], and with the leadership that we have, in their willingness and openness to look at acquisitions differently – [that] is really what is creating opportunities.

What needs to change or expand in terms of how GSA but also the broader government interacts with the private sector for it to be more efficient?

In terms of being more efficient with acquisition and utilizing industry over a broad perspective, there is really the need for us to understand that there are different products and services that could be provided. The Agile [blanket purchase agreement] was a great example of that in which we were able to invite in industry to say, just show us a product. How would you achieve that? Then, let us look at soliciting for that and buying those items.

In terms of how we are going to work with industry overall, I think industry has organized itself to respond to a more complex government. But at the same time, I think that they do have products that they could provide that would be more creative. That would turnover faster if we would provide the platform for them to do that. We really are trying to catch up in some ways.

Jill Aitoro is editor of Defense News. She is also executive editor of Sightline Media's Business-to-Government group, including Defense News, C4ISRNET, Federal Times and Fifth Domain. She brings over 15 years’ experience in editing and reporting on defense and federal programs, policy, procurement, and technology.

In Other News
Load More