The good news is that the vast majority of federal managers and employees are doing their jobs. The bad news is that a few egregious examples of excess or poor management can easily undermine public confidence in government.
The taxpayer dollars spent on a clown, mind reader, conference swag, lavish parties and advance planning for the 2010 GSA conference violated the government’s procurement rules and regulations — and the agency’s internal controls. It’s shameful, at the very least.
What does this say to federal executives? You work in a fishbowl. Be mindful that you are accountable to the American taxpayer and that somebody is likely watching.
Here are some important lessons for federal leaders and managers, taken from the pages of GSA’s conference spending scandal:
■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 If you think a particular rule or regulation is outdated or nonsensical, seek to change it; don’t simply ignore it.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 its 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.