Managing a 'river of consumption'

By Ed O'Keefe
Tuesday, February 9, 2010; A15

Martha N. Johnson is the new head of the General Services Administration, which serves as the government's primary landlord and buyer. Johnson was interviewed Thursday, moments after the Senate approved her confirmation.

Q It's been almost two years since the General Services Administration had a permanent administrator. How are you going to stabilize the ship?

I'm going to be trying to draw a direct connection for the people of GSA to how we're serving the public. We're sitting on this river of consumption by the government, and how we control that is going to be very important going forward.

Since GSA has long left behind its legacy as a mandated procurement source, we must earn procurement business. Our job is to provide solutions to federal agencies so they can meet their missions while being transparent and cost-effective. Those are the standards expected by the taxpayer.

You waited eight months for a Senate confirmation vote. What's the secret to surviving the nomination process?

The nomination process was fascinating. You have to be curious and you have to be learner. I was learning a lot, I was meeting a lot of people. I also had time to spend [in her role as a vice president at the McLean-based Computer Sciences Corp.] on getting involved in projects with technology and the collaborative process that I'm going to be taking into this job.

What are the biggest challenges facing GSA?

We serve the war fighter in Afghanistan, equip the scientist measuring climate change, and assure that judges in courthouses have a venue that enhances justice. GSA is positioned in the conventional sense to leverage the buying power of the federal government so that the taxpayer can be assured the government is getting the best price. This takes work, vigilance and ethics.

We can encourage sustainable products and services, workplace enhancements, ever better technologies for collective problem solving, to give a few examples.

You served in the Clinton administration. What's the secret to surviving in this town?

I think that the secret to surviving is to listen well, to be curious. It's how you comport yourself. It's about being open, being transparent. Telling the story clearly so people can understand your side of the story. And to be grateful and to appreciate the fact that you're in service to the American people. If you can keep focused on that, you can keep focused on your work and not be flummoxed by the other stuff.

You briefly worked for Ben & Jerry's as an executive recruiter. What did you learn from there that might help you at GSA?

Jerry [Greenfield] actually was in my class at Oberlin College. Every reunion, we always hope the class is having ice cream parties. I was doing recruiting for them for a couple of months.

That was a time when I was doing executive recruiting. I learned a tremendous amount about how you assess leaders, how you get them, how you scope a job properly. It really gave me a tremendously fast set of experiences about matching people to work. With clients like them, you can imagine how fast you have to learn them. From there, I went directly into the Clinton-Gore transition and was working on personnel, but it was because of that experience in sourcing candidate pools that had explicit diversity in them.

What's your favorite Ben & Jerry's flavor?

Cherry Garcia, of course.

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