Senators seek assurances GSA will improve
By Simon Brody
Wednesday, June 19th, 2013
Although some senators are still wary about the General Services Administration after 2012's agency spending scandal, many do have high expectations that Dan Tangherlini could continue to bring the stability and credibility that GSA has been lacking. If approved by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee members, and confirmed by the Senate, Dan Tangherlini would be the eighth administrator that the General Services Administration has had in as many years.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), ranking member of the committee, has praised Tangherlini, saying that he would vote for his confirmation.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Chairman of the committee, said, "GSA deserves a leader who understands the complexity of these management challenges and who can work well with the heads of other agencies to help them meet their needs." Carper also said during Tangherlini's confirmation hearing, "I think they have such a leader now in Dan Tangherlini and that he deserves confirmation by the Senate."

Carper has scheduled the committee vote on the nominations of Tangherlini, as well as on Howard Shelanski to be the administrator in the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), on June 24.

The committee has had some time to judge Tangherlini's ability to lead GSA as he has been the acting administrator since April 2012, when he was pulled from Treasury to replace GSA's previous administrator, Martha Johnson. Johnson was one of three senior GSA leaders who resigned after the Western Regions Conference spending scandal went public.

Even with general praise from the committee, lawmakers will continue to pay close attention to a few specific areas of GSA's operations. Tangherlini was directly asked by committee members about challenges in acquisition and real property that the agency continuously faces. Committee members also wanted Tangherlini's assurance that fixing GSA's System for Award Management (SAM) program would be a high priority.

SAM has been a problem for GSA since last summer and is the main piece of the Integrated Acquisition Environment (IAE). SAM's goal is to incorporate eight different acquisition systems, including the past performance database, the suspension and debarment database, and the Central Contractor Registration or CCR.

GSA and its contractor IBM have faced obstacles in the last year to get the system operating smoothly. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said she predicted that SAM wouldn't work, and GSA is proving her right.

Tangherlini reports that Casey Coleman, GSA's Chief Information Officer, and Tom Sharpe, the Federal Acquisition Service Commissioner, are currently exploring options for the future of SAM.

"I think we've also learned some incredibly valuable lessons within GSA in how we should manage IT programs. Giving it to our policy shop, the Office of Governmentwide Policy, was a big mistake," Tangherlini said. "We've moved it over to be jointly managed by the FAS, because it is an acquisition system after all and these are the guys who are going to have to use it, and the tech guys. What we owe you is a better set of answers. How are we going to ensure we are making progress consistently along the way, some kind of continually reporting and what that timeline really is? I think we need to be realistic about the timeline because this is a very complicated area."

This statement led McCaskill to question Tangherlini on whether SAM's completion date, which was originally scheduled in 2015, could be met. Tangherlini responded that the completion schedule will now depend on decisions made about the future of SAM by the CIO and FAS; these decisions are to be made in the coming months.

Tangherlini also indicated that he has high hopes for the results that the completion of SAM will bring; namely the reduction of costs and duplication, as well as help to the government in obtaining better value from contracting.

McCaskill responded that she would like to see a working and beneficial SAM system by the time Tangherlini leaves GSA in 2016.

GSA's recent inspector general report on management interference in contract negations was also a topic of interest in the area of big acquisitions. Many lawmakers were concerned about the findings of the IG. Tangherlini attempted to reassure lawmakers that GSA is currently striving to remedy the issues found by the IG.

"What the IG report detailed in terms of activity was completely unacceptable. We actually took immediate personnel action against one person named in the report. We also have undertaken a broader top-to-bottom review of contracting within the organization," he said. "I put my new head of FAS, Tom Sharpe, in partnership with our new chief acquisition officer, Anne Rung, and asked them to go look at the entire structure of how we engage in contracting within GSA top-to-bottom to make sure we have the appropriate oversight, people have the ability to raise concerns and that we're doing what we are expected to do there. If I'm going to go to agencies and say, 'Use GSA,' they need to be about to count on getting the best and highest quality contracting activities with the highest integrity."

Lawmakers, however, failed to address broader concerns raised by industry about the IG report such as the prediction by some industry experts that the IG report will greatly discourage communications between vendors, contracting officers and management. Many feel that the findings of the report convey that supervisory input and oversight should be limited.

During a press conference following the hearing, Tangherlini reemphasized that management does have a role in overseeing contracting officers, but that it has to be appropriate.

"What we want to do is create an environment where people don't feel like they are afraid for taking the right action and we will actually have a conversation and dialogue, not phone calls and vague threats. That's not the kind of environment we want," Tangherlini said in a post-hearing interview. "You're right, there is always going to be some supervisory judgment, there's going to be a dialogue and discussion and decisions have to be made, but what we want to do is do it in the most transparent way so no one feels like their job is being threatened because they are trying to look out for the American taxpayer."

Tangherlini added that contracting officers should feel comfortable in raising concerns to those beyond their supervisor with the assurance that they will be supported for reporting their concerns. Some in the industry have also voiced the need for GSA to have an acquisition ombudsman to help mediate these disagreements. Tangherlini says that he is open to such an idea and that one already exists in GSA.

"We do have a chief acquisition officer and that's why I've asked Anne to participate with Tom in the top-to-bottom review of the contracting activity within GSA because I think Anne as the CAO and the senior procurement executive within GSA can also serve as an outlet for individuals to raise concerns about how their contracting authorities are being used or challenged," Tangherlini said.

He added the senior procurement executive is a career Senior Executive Service member and can serve as an independent reviewer.

Carper said he wants to make sure companies are still able to bring problems or issues to Capitol Hill where lawmakers can talk to agencies about their concerns.

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