Martha Johnson's resignation from GSA

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The inspector general report (.pdf) that led former General Services Administrator Martha Johnson to resign on April 2 contains shocking examples of government waste.

The federal officials who decided and proceeded to make their biennial conference in Las Vegas be "over the top" succeeded amply in their goal. $6,325 on commemorative coins. $75,000 for a one-day team-building activity that involved building bicycles. $146,527 for food for 300 attendees over 4 days. Activities that included a paid clown and a mind reader and federally-funded lavish hotel suites and travel expenses.

Clearly, some heads deserve to roll. I'm unsure whether Johnson's should have been one of those, given the current state of information.

GSA is a fairly decentralized agency, meaning that regional commissioners enjoy a fair amount of autonomy. The conference in question was put on by western regions of the GSA's Public Building Service; Congress in particular likes its PBS administrators regionally empowered--it gives them someone local to pressure. According to the report, the Washington, D.C.-based PBS Commissioner did attend, but he appears to have had no role in the actual planning. (Johnson fired him on the same day she resigned; if he was complicit, then he clearly deserved it.)

It's perfectly possible, in other words, that Johnson didn't have direct knowledge of the conference planning and only found out about its lavishness after it already concluded. As the report notes, Johnson in August 2011 responded by centralizing previously decentralized PBS budget authority and canceling future instances of the annual conference. It sounds like she was red-hot mad, as she had reason to be.

The defense of "I didn't know" (if that's indeed the case) from top officials is a weak one--the buck stops with them, after all. However, in an organization where responsibility is diffuse, so must be accountability. And Johnson's inability to prevent an orgy of conference spending in Las Vegas should be balanced against the good she brought to the agency.

GSA has suffered a lot this past decade under incompetent leadership. Johnson, a former chief of staff during the David Barram era, brought energy, a commitment to innovation and a determination to return GSA to its role as a helpful supporter of agency needs. She was unflashy, if occasionally a little eccentric in her choice of words (c.f. her early speeches calling GSA a "membrane"). She did good work in an agency that needed it. Nothing against the new acting administrator, but GSA now enters a new period of instability because it lacks a Senate-confirmed leader and its last administrator resigned in supposed disgrace. If she simply fell on her own sword in order for the Obama administration to demonstrate that it has zero tolerance for waste, then her resignation was unwarranted. GSA has an important role in how the federal government is run and it needs a period of stability. Johnson (again, assuming no new evidence about her involvement with the conference surfaces) was the leader poised to deliver that stability and, despite the conference, she could have continued to do so. If appearances are the only reason she resigned, then waste hasn't been punished, it's been perpetuated. - Dave

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