The man behind the GSA’s biggest plans


Acting General Services Administration (GSA) Administrator Dan Tangherlini. (Alex Wong/GETTY IMAGES)

The last time Dan M. Tangherlini had a job that was not with the government, he was driving a forklift in a warehouse in Worcester, Mass., during a summer home from college.

The work prepared him for two decades of heavy lifting in Washington, working for a trio of federal agencies, serving as D.C. deputy mayor and city administrator, and as the interim chief of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

Now 45 and a father of two who lives in Capitol Hill, Tangherlini is eight months into a stint as acting administrator of the General Services Administration, where he is doing what he’s always done — making big, unexpected moves.

Tangherlini spearheaded the effort to develop a new streetcar line in the District under then-Mayor Anthony Williams. When he has brought in as interim general manager at Metro in 2006, he pushed the agency to sell advertising in its facilities, something that has become commonplace today. He arrived at the Treasury Department as chief financial officer and chief performance officer while the agency was in the midst of trying to right the languishing national economy.

Last week, Tangherlini announced that he would seek private sector ideas for redeveloping two major federal properties in downtown Washington, the J. Edgar Hoover Building and 22-acres of offices south of the National Mall.

Tangherlini said he gathered as much information as he could on the FBI, touring the Hoover building and meeting with stakeholders on the Hill and in other agencies before determining the agency needed a new home. During his career, whether he was filling potholes or assessing Treasury contracts, he said he has focused on “what data we have available and seeing if through analysis and asking tough questions we can come up with better ways of doing that work.”

“That’s what I love doing,” he said. “It’s trying to find better ways to provide service at the lowest possible cost.”

Though dramatic for an agency that owns some 14,000 vacant buildings nationwide and under-uses 55,000 other locations, the moves did not surprise Neil O. Albert, who followed Tangherlini as city administrator after Tangherlini departed former mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s administration for Treasury.

Albert said Tangherlini was a “maestro” with data whose enthusiasm made talented people want to join him.

“I’ve never seen him sweat,” Albert said. “I’ve never seen him use a harsh word to his team.”

Righting an agency

Tangherlini was on spring break with his family when Jack Lew, President Obama’s chief of staff, called to ask if he would take the helm of GSA, shortly before Martha Johnson would step down amid a scandal over conference spending.

It was a chance to right an agency many viewed as in disarray. And Tangherlini’s history of promoting public transit and smart growth (he walks or uses the city’s bike-sharing program to get to work) dovetails nicely with Obama’s directive for agencies to reduce gas emissions and incorporate better regional planning.

With the FBI proposed relocation, however, Tangherlini is likely to encounter a level of political scrutiny tougher than any he experienced standing up for a polarizing mayor or taking over the GSA. He says he has already received calls from many of the area’s elected officials, each with their argument about why an FBI consolidation and as many as 11,000 jobs should move to their part of the region.

Tangherlini said he has not toured a single prospective FBI site and is instead waiting to see the responses that arrive by the March 4 deadline. To gin up interest in the Federal Triangle South property, near the Mall, he will present to developers from the D.C. Building Industry Association on Dec. 20.

“My point is, why don’t we ask the marketplace what this property is worth and what we can get in exchange for it, and see then what those relative offers are,” he said.

To some GSA veterans and partners, Tangherlini has yet to prove himself, and it is unknown whether he will remain on the job in Obama's second term. “I think you have to see more in the way of results. This world is more than just issuing [requests for proposals],” said Arthur Turowski, a 35-year veteran of the GSA who is now a senior vice president at the real estate services firm Jones Lang LaSalle.

Tangherlini said he does not know whether he will remain at GSA. “I am enjoying the job,” he said. “There is all sorts of exciting work that we can do. And the administration is committed to making sure we take some aggressive strides in this area.”

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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