Agency Instability: GSA begins to feel toll of not having permanent leader

By fourth acting administrator, Stephen Leeds, since Lurita Doan was forced to resign after a controversial two years at the helm.

And there doesn’t seem to be any end of the parade of acting administrators in sight.


President Obama’s nominee Martha Johnson is stuck in the Senate.

After the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved Johnson’s nomination in May, Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) placed a hold on Johnson in July that has little to do with her qualifications or background. Instead, Bond is unhappy with GSA’s plans to build a federal building in downtown Kansas City.

Bond’s hold on Johnson is the latest in a long line of morale-busting challenges that is starting to have a significant effect on GSA, says current and former agency officials.

“The continued absence of an administrator for this period of time is making it more difficult for us to move forward with confidence that we are going in the right direction,” says a GSA source, who requested anonymity because of the subject matter is sensitive. “Even if Martha were being briefed daily and gave her blessing on everything going on–of course no one could admit that and I don’t think it’s true because to do so would further jeopardize her confirmation and make the Senator more upset-it’s really just an untenable situation and it continues with little hope in sight that we will get some sort of relief.”

Instead of some sort of resolution, GSA, instead, is seeing long-time career officials retire and a high-ranking political official surprisingly resign to return to the private sector. GSA deputy administrator Barney Brasseux retired earlier this month after 17 years at the agency and nearly 28 years in government. Tyree Varnado, the deputy commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service, also retired in January after more than 35 years in government, most of which was with GSA.

While Brasseux and Varnado’s decisions were not surprising, Danielle Germain, the GSA chief of staff who was brought on specifically to work for Johnson, surprised many in and of government by resigning to work for the National Academy of Public Administration after only six months on the job.

All of this turnover and change is perpetuating a growing uneasiness among employees as their confidence in the long term success of the agency fades, according to people inside and outside of GSA

“There is a growing frustration level among employees,” says another GSA source. “We have a powerful role in the government process and that role is being diminished.”

The official adds that the lack of a permanent administrator is affecting the development of the agency’s strategic vision because acting administrators worry more about the day-to-day operations.

And former GSA officials say the lack of a political appointee is leading to other senior leaders focusing on themselves and not the agency as a whole.

“There are opportunities for GSA to evolve and many things we ought to be doing to evolve and improve, and quite frankly there’s not as much enthusiasm for making these changes and achieving those evolutions in the absence of a full time administrator,” the first GSA source says. “I think it’s a combination of intentional foot dragging where clearly there are some who are not on board and we don’t have the camaraderie that you would have in permanent situation. And there are a number of us for sure who believe we weren’t given a day in court to make a case about the way things are going and who believe as soon as the new administrator comes in, we will try to undue those things shouldn’t have been done by the caretaker.”

At the same time, however, nearly every current and former official interviewed for this story says GSA is meeting their day-in and day-out mission without regard to who sits in the administrator’s office.

In the past few years, GSA awarded the multi-million dollar Alliant technology contract, spent more than $300 million on new fuel efficient cars for the government and continues to see its revenue from its schedule contracts and governmentwide acquisition vehicles increase at rates not seen in five years. And, the Obama administration is giving GSA more responsibility with everything from cloud computing to making the government more energy efficient to leading the open government and transparency initiative. Add to that, GSA received more than $5 billion from the Recovery Act to improve federal buildings.

GSA spokeswoman Sahar Wali says the agency success has to do with the hard work of the career employees. But the lack of a permanent leader is having an effect.

“It’s no secret that the agency has been in transition for two years now,” Wali says. “Under this administration, the agency has been given an unprecedented mandate to not only green the country, but turn around the economy. The people at GSA of been doing fantastic job of doing that. But as you know, GSA is the business of government and imagine running a business for two years without a permanent CEO. We are getting the job done, but we look forward to the day when our administrator gets confirmed and we have that permanent leadership to take the agency to the next level.”

Wali says it’s not a matter of slowing down momentum or not getting the job done, but it’s how innovative GSA can be. And that spirit of innovation is something Johnson will bring to the agency, Wali adds.

John Sindelar, who worked at GSA for more than 25 years, has been through several acting administrators over his career in government.

Sindelar, who now is a client industry executive for Hewlett-Packard, says GSA can adapt better than most agencies to meet its mission without stable executive leadership.

But the stress of constant interim administrators shows the greatest during the budget season, Sindelar says.

“Having that void or vacuum at the top in terms of leadership impedes in general the organization’s ability to carry out its mission,” he says. “A very telling way is the policy setting that is done through the budget priorities and resources. The administrator sets policy largely through decisions submitted through the budget to the Office of Management and Budget and Congress. In terms of a new president and a lack of a head of an agency, it makes the alignment with administration initiatives much more difficult.”

Sindelar adds that the GSA administrator also defends its budget before OMB and Congress, and an acting leader doesn’t carry the same weight as a permanent one.

“An acting administrator can be effective, but when it comes to a congressional hearing or dealing with industry on a contentious issue such as procurement, they want to deal with someone who will be there for some time and can make decisions stick,” he says. “An acting can do that but not to the same extent as a permanent administrator can.”

Officials inside the agency echo Sindelar’s concerns about communication.

One official says a Senate confirmed leader is on par with other cabinet level agency heads and brings GSA clout during White House meetings.

The official adds employees also don’t have the same attitude with an acting administrator in place either.

“There is a difference when there is a permanent boss,” the official says. “It’s get on board or go somewhere else. Martha would not have the same kind of resistance that we see with acting administrators.”

Another official says a permanent administrator can exert influence over other agencies more successfully than an acting one could.

“We need some political clout to make cross agency initiatives more successful,” the official says. “We are being hurt because we haven’t had someone to do that.”

Part 2 of Agency Instability, a Federal News Radio special investigative report into the impact of not having a permanent leader at the General Services Administration for almost two years, continues today at 4:05 on the Daily Debrief on Federal News Radio 1500 AM and on

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