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Falling on One's Sword, Federal Government-Style How Better Business Intelligence Could Have Helped the GSA

Originally published April 11, 2012

It has long been common practice in many cultures and traditions that to atone for misdeeds, dishonor or sometimes simple accidents of misfortune, an individual is forced to pay by sacrificing his or her life. Before the invention of gunpowder, the honorable way of suicide as atonement was accomplished by pointing a sword at your own heart and literally falling on it, such as in Life of Brutus by Plutarch. Yet most of our contemporary references seem to point to the Japanese and their practice of seppuku, sometimes referred to as hara-kiri due to linguistic ambiguity in the way the kanji characters are used in writing. In this Japanese ritual suicide, reserved only for samurais as part of their honor code of bushido, the warrior plunges a short blade into the abdomen and disembowels himself by moving the blade in a slicing motion, left to right.

Enough of the bloody details of atonement by suicide in ancient history and other cultures; let’s see how it is done in a much more relevant and contemporary culture: the federal government in 2012. The functionary in question tenders his or her letter of resignation and then is disemboweled by the press, which prints all the gory details as part of its usual mission of “informing the public.”

Thus we come to the case of Martha Johnson, who recently resigned as Administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA). It was an unfortunate end to what had been a solid three-year performance at the helm of GSA.

But, the pound of flesh must be paid. In this case it was excessive spending in an “over the top” conference that had been held near Las Vegas in October 2010 by the Western Region of the Public Building Service, one of GSA’s operating divisions. The story was broken by The Washington Post based on a critical report by GSA’s Inspector General (IG). It drew focused attention from the White House and, in an election year where jobs, the economy, and public spending are critical issues, it had to take action. The press reported that the president was “outraged.” Even Jay Leno took a jab at it and joked that the Chinese were very mad because, “after all, it’s their money.” Now there is talk of a Congressional investigation. GSA has to pay the price, and so we have Martha Johnson’s resignation.

First, let me say that I am not defending waste and abuse of federal money. As a taxpayer it would be foolish for me to do so. If there are better and less expensive ways of accomplishing the objectives of events like the one that caused this incident, they should be followed. Furthermore, symbolism is important and any lavish government spending while the recession was adversely affecting the citizenry certainly needed to be singled out and reprimanded.

My argument is for more restraint in the narrative – more bread and less circus, if you will – because the person who has had to pay for this incident and fall on her sword, independently of how much fault should fall directly on her shoulders, was a long-time public servant to whom the taxpayer in many ways is also indebted.

Let’s look at the details. The Inspector General’s report highlighted the following in its findings:

  • GSA spending on conference planning was excessive, wasteful, and in some cases impermissible.
  • GSA failed to follow contracting regulations in many of the procurements associated and wasted taxpayer dollars.
  • GSA incurred excessive and impermissible costs for food. 
  • GSA incurred impermissible and questionable miscellaneous expenses. 
  • GSA’s approach to the conference indicates that minimizing expenses was not a goal.
Some of the specific items – noted in the press – that drew the attention of the inspector general and the ire of the president include:
  • Giving commemorative coins to participants
  • Excessive planning trips
  • A $120 birthday cake at a planning session
  • Free rooms for a contractor’s employees
  • A cost of $75,000 for a team-building exercise of assembling of bicycles
  • Providing a conference “yearbook” to participants
Of course, rules exist to be followed, until they have to changed. Nonetheless, when I read the IG report I do have to question whether such a punctilious investigation serves the greater good. For example, the IG finds that GSA’s rules were broken because:
  • The bicycles from the team-building exercise were donated to the local Boys’ and Girls’ Club, but the IG frowned on the approach for selection of the charity.
  • In some instances, the cost of the meals paid by GSA exceeded the per diem, although the IG recognized that most employees rigorously deducted the actual cost of each breakfast, lunch and dinner in their expense accounts.
  • In some cases, relatives who were not GSA employees also ate agency-provided meals without paying.
  • GSA paid for refreshment breaks at meetings in contravention of the rule that allows paying for coffee and cookies for training events, but not planning meetings.
Aside from the fact that some of this seems rather petty – making the wife of an executive pay for a lunch or dinner at a company-sponsored event – we just need to have a better approach to accounting for all this and develop improved standards and policies to address the real objectives of these events. Yes, folks, we need better business intelligence to establish an improved decision-making framework. What are the standards that we need to have when doing seminars, conferences or planning meetings? What makes sense in terms of return on investment for doing them? Can we quantify the conference’s impact on pattern-based strategy (PBS) performance?

I am well aware, for example, that one of the first budget items to get cut in times of belt tightening is training. Why? If the objective of training is learning and knowledge acquisition it would seem that cutting it is penny wise but pound foolish. Likewise, we need to better understand what is accomplished by conferences such as the one held by GSA, whose stated objectives were around “training in job skills and exchanging ideas.”

As an IBM veteran of many years, I cannot forget some of the “One Hundred Percent Clubs” that I attended. It was IBM’s way of rewarding the marketing force’s performance in the previous year and encouraging improved performance in the year to come. The institution was started in 1924 and it continues to this day, evidence that when done right, events like these do have a positive impact on an organization’s performance. And talk about over the top! GSA’s conference costs seem proportionally insignificant in comparison.

Is it fair to compare GSA to IBM? Are the standards and practice of the private sector applicable to the government? In the case of GSA, they are certainly worth considering. GSA has the mandate to leverage the purchasing power of government to procure the goods, services and workspace that the federal workforce needs to do its job for the best possible value. That includes everything from office space, automobile fleets and travel arrangements to communications networks, IT hardware/ software and pens, pencils and paper. But because GSA is a reseller of goods and services to the rest of the government, it competes with the private sector – in many cases, the government can choose to buy directly from the original vendors. Over the years, the mandate for other agencies to buy only through GSA has  weakened, and as a result GSA has to compete to do its job. The ease with which one can acquire goods or services with a government credit card sometimes makes it difficult for GSA to compete with Staples or Office Depot. The emergence of the GWAC (Government Wide Contract Vehicles) issued by many agencies (e.g., the Department of Defense, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of the Interior) allows large acquisitions to happen outside the traditional GSA schedules. The GSA has been pressured by their government customers to compete for their business. This has been healthy for all involved, the taxpayer included, and led GSA to pioneer customer relationship management (CRM) software and approaches in the federal government.

Again, I am not suggesting that we should embrace excessive spending, but I do believe we need to do better analysis of how we plan, execute and manage events and tie them to outcomes in performance. Government should be frugal, but it should also be careful not to take reactive short-term actions that might prove to be misguided in the long term.

I understand that someone had to pay for this incident once it hit the front page of The Washington Post, but it’s a shame it had to be someone like Martha Johnson, who was an effective advocate of telework and cloud technologies, introduced hybrid vehicles into the federal automotive fleet, substantially moved the ball forward on energy-efficient buildings and in the process raised morale at GSA, which was sorely needed. Maybe the government needs the equivalent of the “penalty box” in hockey, where players can pay for their transgressions but still be able to continue contributing to the team.

More important, let’s try to pre-empt incidents like this through improved analytics and business intelligence and prevent any more dedicated and able public servants from having to fall on their own swords.
  • Dr. Ramon BarquinDr. Ramon Barquin

    Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

    He had a long career in IBM with over 20 years covering both technical assignments and corporate management, including overseas postings and responsibilities. Afterwards he served as president of the Washington Consulting Group, where he had direct oversight for major U.S. Federal Government contracts.

    Dr. Barquin was elected a National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) Fellow in 2012. He serves on the Cybersecurity Subcommittee of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee; is a Board Member of the Center for Internet Security and a member of the Steering Committee for the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council’s (ACT-IAC) Quadrennial Government Technology Review Committee. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. 

    Dr. Barquin can be reached at rbarquin@barquin.com.

    Editor's note: More articles from Dr. Barquin are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel


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