GSA Head Martha Johnson Speaks about Driving Change in the Federal Government
Martha N. Johnson '79, administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration, uses an analogy to explain the power of her organization, which manages many aspects of the federal government. With its immense buying power and the number of buildings it runs, the GSA can act like a giant magnet, drawing iron filings towards it, something as tangible as an initiative to install more solar panels or the more ambitious drive to create a government with "zero environmental footprint."
"We make markets by our decisions," she said. "How the government changes and how it works is our agenda. We're a proving ground."
Johnson spoke at Yale SOM on January 25 as a special guest of Dean Sharon Oster, who called her career an example of the kind of cross-sectoral management SOM specializes in. Since leaving Yale, Johnson has worked in management both in the private and public sectors, focusing on improving operations through a greater focus on efficiency and collaboration among stakeholders. Her appointment by President Obama to run the GSA marked her second stint in government. Under President Clinton, she worked first at the Commerce Department and then at GSA, where she served as chief of staff.
Johnson is a career manager who has worked on major initiatives to essentially redo several organizations. She said the charge given her by President Obama is to use the mass of the GSA — which includes managing 350 million square feet of building space and touching a $90 billion flow of goods and services — to achieve new efficiencies not just for the entire government, but for the private sector as well. An example is the drive to install solar panels on federal buildings. The GSA owns buildings in every congressional district, Johnson said, allowing it to test different products and potentially help provide a market for new technologies. She added that the same can be done with how the government is managed. "This is a fabulous place to be right now as we get to play with executive management notions," she said. "We're carrying an agenda that the GSA has never had before."
Since assuming her position a year ago, Johnson has already begun to change the management culture of her agency. She instituted what are known as "slams," meetings where various stakeholders are essentially locked in a room until they come up with the solution to a pressing problem. She said she has found that when brought together, people can often crack a problem more quickly and creatively than if they worked on it separately. "I've never found more creative ideas than in the federal government," she said. "People are motivated by passion and a sense of mission."