“On My Watch” – Martha Johnson’s Book About Her GSA Time (and the GSA Scandal)

The Thanksgiving lull was a good time for me to read On My Watch.

I had retired well before Martha Johnson became GSA Administrator. I was there however, in a high level position, when she was Chief of Staff to GSA Administrator David Barram. During Mr. Barram’s administration, GSA, in my opinion, underwent the most dramatic cultural change in its history. The agency went from a regulatory to a service-oriented mode. There were major changes in the way GSA handled information technology as well as its management of property. I was in Public Buildings Service which, under Mr. Barram, became a provider of choice, forcing GSA to not only become service-conscious but to be fiscally accountable for its management of property.

Now, about the book.

This is a good read. Govies at all stages of their career can relate. As an ex-GSA person I can especially relate because I knew a lot of the people referenced in the book. Most went nameless either due to courtesy or to assure avoidance of litigation.

Three broad topics are discussed; her ideas on management, the GSA scandal and the human post-scandal reactions. It is all told in an interesting, first person manner, with humor, and the acknowledgement that in a government or political setting the rules do not always work as intended. There is considerable discussion of how to get the principles to work in organizations like GSA.

As a retiree I will admit that it is a bit late in life for me to learn new management practices for business. Nevertheless I found her views on communications very interesting and practical. There is a lengthy discussion about people at the top leading in the dark and how to overcome what she calls the “Do-Not-Tell-the-Leader Code.” From what I have been told, she practiced what she preached.

Likewise, there are discussions of broad topics like “measurements” and “performance plans” and how an organization can get carried away with misusing them. From my experience at GSA these were often used for negative actions rather than to truly evaluate performance.

My particular interest had been her views on the GSA scandal and how it affected her personally. As anyone who has followed my GovLoop blogs or You Tube extravaganzas would recognize, I was less than eloquent or polite in my own opinion of the real story behind the so-called scandal.

In the book, Ms. Johnson acknowledges what everybody knew. She fell on her sword (her words) for the party. She politely, but emphatically discusses the entire scenario and how it was staged to play out for the media and Congress. If she said anything politically incorrect, but so true, it was her opinion that as a political appointee you have to accept that loyalty flows up, but not necessarily down.

I was rather pleased with her reference to the congressional hearings as “theatrics,” because it was the very term I had often used.

As for the post-scandal fallout, Ms. Johnson is not the first, nor will she be the last, political appointee to take the fall from something over which she had little control or knowledge. Her reaction was very human. She was shocked and hurt, but mainly disappointed that she was unable to complete her mission, and unable say a proper goodbye and thank you to her staff and the GSA employees.

The best philosophical observation was that “ship captains shoulder responsibility and sometimes walk the plank for others’ mistakes.”

Having to sit in front of C-Span cameras testifying to a hostile Congress after she already lost her job was a shattering experience. She took solace in quotes from people ranging from Dr. Seuss to Mick Jagger.

The book was an interesting compilation of thoughts from a short but significant time at the top of what has become a very visible federal agency.

For more commentary on the GSA scandal and other government matters click the links on my website, http://www.thegovernmentman.com. Feel free to “Like” my Facebook page.

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