GSA: A checkered past

image A variant of a Shakespearian quote shows up on the base of a statue outside the National Archives, once within the domain of the General Services Administration: “What is past is prologue.”

Why have so many scandals broken out at the government’s business agency over the years? And will we see more of them in the future? Jonathan Stone, the reporter In The Solomon Scandals, recalls “GSA’s quotidian mission as the government’s housekeeper, and its reputation as a haven for political hacks willing to bend over for their masters—the lowest form of bureaucratic life despite many stellar civil servants like Margo.”

image In fairness to GSA, the agency has engaged in some laudable initiatives since its founding in 1949, such as the encouragement of telecommuting and historical preservation. The agency has indeed had its share of positives. Perhaps through the wise use of information technology, moreover, the incoming Obama administration will improve the fairness and openness of contract awards—a point I’ve made elsewhere on this site. The savings could amount to many billions, considering that GSA’s 12,000 employees work with a yearly budget of $16 billion but oversee the spending of $66 billion.

But for now, GSA has its share of negatives to overcome. Most recently the agency drew the ire of safety experts with a statement against fire code regulations designed to reduce 9/11-type deaths during the evacuation of tall high-rises. Just who are GSA’s ultimate constituents? The taxpayers or government contractors? Check out Wikipedia for some of the more recent scandals at GSA, such as the Bush White House’s attempts to make GSA even more political than it has been. In April 2008, Administrator Lurita Doan resigned amid charges she had engaged in “the most pernicious of political activity.”

The good news is President Obama’s appointment of Martha Johnson as GSA administrator. Among other things she is an expert in organizational culture and perhaps can make some positive changes in GSA’s; furthermore, in at least one case, she has stood up to political pressure involving the GSA leasing program.

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David Rothman

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