Federal Official: Government Can Be Test Lab for New Ideas

February 08, 2012

February 8, 2012 — A nimble catalyst for innovation, eager to takes risks and make Americans' lives better and greener, is how U.S. General Services Administrator Martha Johnson described the massive federal agency she leads to students at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business last week.

"You have to take risks," Johnson said in her Feb. 2 speech. "But you make them smart risks. The GSA is the epicenter for smart risk-taking in government. At the GSA, we need to try things in part so the whole government doesn't have to."

That's not your father's government-gray General Services Administration.

Johnson, who was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the 19th administrator of general services in 2010, was the keynote speaker at the kickoff of the two-day Darden Business in Society Conference, sponsored by student clubs and Darden's new Initiative for Business in Society, a research center that explores business' role in society. She also spoke as part of the Darden Leadership Speaker Series.

The GSA is huge, Johnson emphasized. It guides nearly $95 billion of federal purchases annually. It manages 220,000 federal vehicles. It contracts for 10 million government-related trips a year. And it manages 370 million square feet of space, "located at every altitude and in every climate," she said.

The GSA sets government policy, runs the big government call centers and Web services, and disposes of federal real estate and other unwanted items – such as 2 million space shuttle-related objects. "We're kind of into everything. It's a joy to have this job and these stories to tell," she said.

President Obama's directive to Johnson is to help create an America that "is built to last," she said. That includes finding smart energy solutions. "We're shifting from one or two energy solutions to a belief that there are many such solutions, that there's no silver bullet, but silver buckshot. Let's see what hits where," she said.

With just a fraction of fossil fuels located in the United States, "We need renewable ideas," Johnson said. "This is where the GSA beams."

"I travel around the country and see the weirdest things – oil drillers who are now geothermal drillers, roofers who install solar panels," she said.

The GSA has embraced the sustainability agenda with a goal to leave a zero environmental footprint, Johnson said. "We don't know how we'll get there, but we need to strike the strongest stance we can."

"We're doing hundreds of things on the sustainability front," she said, including experimenting with all-electric cars – about 100 of them. "It's not exotica to us. We own buildings with charging stations. We can do the whole package."

Johnson said one huge GSA-owned building in Indianapolis is "football field-sized" and has six different solar panel technologies installed on its roof. "We have the scale to do this experimenting," she said.

She told Darden students that as good citizens they need to "demand of your government that it be sustainable. … Allow it to take risks. We're the innovators. We're at the edge. We're willing to try. We are the big engine that could."

Following the keynote speech, Johnson led a roundtable discussion on sustainability, innovation and Obama's State of the Union address with business leaders from the Charlottesville community.

The Darden Business in Society Conference is an annual event co-organized by the student-led Net Impact, Energy, Business & Public Policy and Education clubs, with support from the Initiative for Business in Society. Friday's conference highlights included panel discussions on topics ranging from corporate sustainability to green supply chains.

Media Contact

Beth Schmid

Senior Writer McIntire School of Commerce