Senators push Tangherlini for assurances GSA is improving

Wednesday - 6/19/2013, 5:26am EDT

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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If confirmed by the Senate, Dan Tangherlini would be the eighth administrator of the General Services Administration in the last eight years.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee members say he would bring the stability to the agency that has been sorely missing during that time.

Lawmakers hold high expectations that Tangherlini would continue to get GSA moving in the right direction.

Dan Tangherlini, acting administrator, GSA

"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," said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, during Tangherlini's confirmation hearing Tuesday. "I think they have such a leader now in Dan Tangherlini and that he deserves confirmation by the Senate."

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), ranking member of the committee, also praised Tangherlini and said he would vote for his confirmation.

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

A long wait for the call

Tangherlini's nomination and hearing have been a long-time coming. He has been the acting GSA administrator since April 2012 when the White House pulled him over from Treasury to replace Martha Johnson. Johnson was one of three senior GSA leaders to leave after the Western Regions Conference scandal became public.

But even with widespread praise from the committee, lawmakers will continue to pay close attention across several areas of GSA's mission. Committee members specifically asked Tangherlini about acquisition and real property challenges the agency continues to face.

Several lawmakers sought Tangherlini's assurance that the System for Award Management (SAM) program would be a high priority and fixed.

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

But GSA and its contractor IBM struggled over the last year to get the system running smoothly.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said she predicted that SAM wouldn't work, and GSA is proving her right.

Completion date may slip

Tangherlini said GSA Chief Information Officer Casey Coleman and Federal Acquisition Service Commissioner Tom Sharpe are working on potential 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."

McCaskill pressed Tangherlini on whether the schedule to complete SAM has slipped from the 2015 deadline initially established. Tangherlini said the schedule now depends on the decision that's made on how to proceed with SAM that will be made by the CIO and FAS in the coming months.

When SAM is eventually completed, Tangherlini said he hoped it would reduce costs and duplication, and help the government get better value from contracting.

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

The other big acquisition area that came up several times during the hearing was the recent GSA inspector general report on management interference in contract negotiations.

Top-to-bottom review underway

Lawmakers said they were troubled and perplexed about what the IG found.

Tangherlini tried to reassure the lawmakers that GSA is fixing the problems 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, didn't address the broader concerns raised by industry about the IG report. Some industry experts say the IG report will put a major chill on communications between vendors, contracting officers and management, and that the findings are sending a message that supervisory input and oversight should be limited.

In a press conference after the hearing, Tangherlini reemphasized that management has a role to play in overseeing contracting officers, but it's got to be an appropriate one.

"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," he said in an interview after the hearing. "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."

Independent determination possible

Tangherlini added contracting officers should feel like they can raise concerns beyond their supervisor and know they will be supported for bringing potential problems to light.

Some in industry also have brought up the need for GSA to have an acquisition ombudsman to help sort out these disagreements.

Tangherlini said he's open to such an idea, but 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 that independent reviewer.

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

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