In scandal, buck stops with federal executives

Tuesday - 4/3/2012, 9:33am EDT

John Palguta, vice president, Partnership for Public Service

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Don Kettl, Dean of the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy

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One federal management expert says Martha Johnson modeled the "ultimate in accountability" when she stepped down Monday as head of the General Services Administration in light of an Inspector General report that outlined wasteful spending at a 2010 training conference in Las Vegas. Also, two other GSA officials were fired Monday.

John Palguta, the vice president of the Partnership for Public Service, told The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp that federal executives must always have the mindset that they "work in a fishbowl."

"Whatever you're doing and whatever decision you're making, if they were to end up the lead story on Federal News Radio or the front page of the Washington Post, how would it look?" Palguta said.

GSA spent nearly $823,000 on the conference, according to the IG report. The IG blamed an "over-the-top" spending philosophy. Also, GSA violated its own procurement regulations in some instances, such as disclosing a competitor's proposal to a favored contractor and providing free rooms to a contractor's employees.

"Ignorance is not an excuse," Palguta said. "So you have to learn the policies and rules and you have to abide by them."

The timing of the IG report was unfortunate, coming in the middle of a presidential campaign and after the Obama administration has made a strong push against wasteful government spending. In other words, the story is a "political nightmare for the White House," said Don Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy.

It seemed like Johnson had "nothing to do with" the actual conference spending decisions, but "it was clear they needed somebody's head and hers was the one that rolled," Kettl said.

In the aftermath of the scandal, managers at GSA should be direct with employees about what happened — "the good, the bad, the ugly," Palguta said.

Last week, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) introduced legislation that would tie Senior Executive Service performance pay to base pay and establish an onboarding program for new executives.

"That's exactly the sort of thing we need to think about in terms of how do we prevent future mishaps of this nature," Palguta said.

The scandal comes amidst top rankings for GSA as one of the best places to work in the federal government, according to the Partnership's annual list. Particularly, GSA's senior leadership has gotten "good marks" on the rankings, he said.

"It'll be interesting to see what happens in the next survey," Palguta said.

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