But there are some lessons to be learned. Tom Fox is the Vice President for Leadership and Innovation at PPS.
He’s compiled his list of the seven things all federal managers can learn from GSA. He laid them out for Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program.
- Ask this one key question. A former 30-year federal executive and colleague of mine, John Palguta, said that he and his colleagues always asked themselves this simple question when they faced uncertainty: “If my actions were to end up on the evening news or the front page of the Washington Post, how would that look and how would I feel?” If your answer is “not so good,” raise a red flag and change your course of action. If the GSA conference planners had stopped to ask themselves that one question, they certainly would have chosen a different path.
- Ignorance is not an excuse to forgo the rules. Learn the government’s procurement rules as well as your agency’s internal policies, and abide by them. Perhaps some of the impermissible GSA expenses were incorrectly thought to be allowable, but that excuse hardly works now. While every federal employee will not necessarily know the ins and outs of all of the complex procurement rules, it makes sense to know the basics so you can ask questions. If you think a particular rule or regulation is outdated or nonsensical, seek to change it, but don’t simply ignore it.
- Look for ways to keep costs down. Seek to reach your goals and deliver services in innovative and cost-effective ways. Dan Tangherlini, the new acting GSA administrator, quickly pledged in a letter to GSA employees that the agency will redouble efforts to control costs, a key message for employees and the public to hear.
- Manage down, but also up. Being a federal manager is a tough job. You not only have to manage your team, but also your boss. If your agency’s leadership is doing something that doesn’t feel right, speak up. Whether your boss is a career civil servant or a political appointee, let leaders know if the path they are choosing might be wrong — because they may not know. Explain the rules and offer more appropriate ways to get the same results. Remember that you cannot simply salute when given an assignment if it is taking you and your agency in the wrong direction.
- Tell your employees the good, the bad and the ugly. In the aftermath of a problem like the GSA debacle, federal executives should tell their employees what went wrong and the plan to correct the missteps. In Tangherlini’s letter to GSA employees, he outlined immediate actions to ensure that GSA will continue to “deliver service excellence and integrity.” He also let employees know that he will work with them, the “talented, committed members of the GSA team to…build an even stronger GSA.”
- Take swift action, but don’t overreact. Government has a tendency to overreact when something goes wrong, and while the costs may not be publicly apparent, the repercussions can last for years. Is it smart to cut all government training conferences because of one fiasco? Certainly not. We need our public servants to receive proper training. Be mindful when responding to mistakes that you don’t go overboard in your efforts to make a fix.
- Enlist your team. Ask your employees for help in flagging potential problems and listen to what they have to say. Make sure they know that you want them to tell you if they see something that isn’t right. Employees are likely to see a train wreck coming long before it reaches you or causes serious damage. In the case of the 2010 GSA conference, it’s reported that several employees tried to suggest a more cost-effective approach but were ignored.
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