Modernizing Government Starts with Its Workers

The GSA's Dan Tangherlini says government offices have to defy their reputation of being slow to change and inconvenient for the average working person.
by | September 23, 2014

Dan Tangherlini isn’t saying government should be run like a business. But businesses sure can teach governments a thing or two.

Namely, said the administrator for the General Services Administration, which is the federal government's office manager and landlord, governments have a reputation of being slow to change and inconvenient for the average working person.

“You can’t have government services that look [one way] and then when you go to the store and it looks [another way],” Tangherlini, who also spent 10 years in local government, said at Governing’s Cost of Government conference in Washington, D.C. “It doesn’t really go over well when you say we’re open Mondays to Fridays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. except for holidays -- including ones that I get and you don’t.”

One way of embracing that dynamic is by changing the physical workplace and embracing the growing preference of younger workers that their offices be more collaborative. Tangherlini gave up his 1,600 square-foot office to take a desk in the new bullpen-style floor at the GSA for the simple reason that he says it’s “really important that when we ask people to do stuff, we do it ourselves.”

He also took the collaborative theme to rewriting the GSA’s mission statement, getting input from employees to translate the goals into something that wouldn’t need a translation for all the jargon. (The mission statement now is to deliver the best value in real estate, acquisitions and technology services to government and the American people.) And when he headed up the District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation, Tangherlini wasn’t adverse to proposing weird new ideas like dying the snow salt blue so risidents would know their roads had been salted. That one didn't work out, but it was worth a thought.

There are downsides to transforming an office into an open air, collaborative marketplace. The main complaints typically come from older workers who can have a hard time adjusting to a more boisterous (and sometimes louder) office place. Experts advise that such changes aren’t for every office. “Make sure you know what it is that your organization accomplishes now, and how it does so,” wrote Colin Ellar in Psychology Today. “Take the time to actually study your workflow. Question your employees. Collect and analyze actual data.”

Still, Tangherlini says government’s reputation for being old and slow can start changing by helping government workers develop a new mindset. “We need to be rebuilding a space for the next 50 years rather than one that worked for the last 50,” he said.