Federal Coach: Lessons from the GSA conference scandal

April 6, 2012

The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post’s On Leadership site jointly produce the Federal Coach, hosted by Tom Fox, director of the partnership’s Center for Government Leadership. The goal is to “engage, inspire and learn from you, the federal worker, whether you are a new hire, a contractor or a manager at the highest level.”

The recent revelations of excessive and inappropriate spending for a General Services Administration regional training conference in Las Vegas could not have come at a worse time given the fiscal constraints facing the government.

Now more than ever, federal managers must deliver value to the American public for every dollar spent.

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.

■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 the 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 can cause serious damage. In the case of the Las Vegas GSA conference, it’s reported that several employees tried to suggest a more cost-effective approach but were ignored.

As a federal leader, the buck stops at your desk.

If something goes wrong on your watch, step up, correct it and deal with the consequences. While former GSA Administrator Martha Johnson had been at the agency for only six months at the time of the conference, she was accountable.

Johnson modeled the ultimate accountability as a leader: She took responsibility for the errors of a few members of her GSA team and resigned. She deserves good marks for an otherwise terrific record. Her work helped deliver important services for the government and taxpayers.

What are your agency leaders doing to prevent similar situations? Have you ever witnessed missteps at your agency or in the federal government? Did you or a colleague do anything to stop them, and were you successful? Please send your thoughts, stories and questions to fedcoach@­­
ourpublicservice.org
.

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