On Leading GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service

This post first appeared on IBM Business of Government. Read the original article.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

A Conversation with Sonny Hashmi, Commissioner, Federal Acquisition Service

The U.S. General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service (FAS) uses the collective buying power of the federal government to acquire goods and services to support its agency customers. According to the recent GSA Strategic Plan, FAS offers agencies more than 31 million different products and services and in fiscal year (FY) 2021 it delivered over $84 billion in various products, services, and solutions. 

Recently, the FAS Commissioner Sonny Hashmi joined me on The Business of Government Hour to discuss its mission and explore his vision for delivering on that mission. The following is excerpt of our discussion.

On the Federal Marketplace Strategy. The Federal Marketplace (FMP) Strategy is an initiative started a few years ago. Over the last year and a half, we’ve refocused the strategy on a set of core priorities. It focuses on how to engage with our supply base, how we make it easy for them to do business with us, how we collect the right data, analyze it, and make decisions and get it to those charged with making decisions. We are also focused on making it easier for our customers, other agencies, to buy through us, to get the data that they need to make comparative analyses. 

The FMP Strategy began with our cornerstone projects: MAS consolidation, catalog management, commercial platforms, and the new contract management system. Building on this foundation, we’re working to enhance four core areas. 

We want to continuously improve our buyer experience. This focuses on creating consolidated online experience that simplifies market research and helps with acquisition planning by providing easy access to commonly used documents, templates, and pricing resources. 

We need to make sure that the supplier experience gets the same focus. This involves helping suppliers determine their best contracting options, consolidating and simplifying catalog management, and reducing burden for suppliers. 

The third area is we want to create a thriving products marketplace that refines and clarifies GSA’s online product marketplace offerings to improve customer experience and selection process incorporating into it: sustainability, small business focus, cybersecurity, and price analysis. 

We are doing all of this while also improving GSA’s services contracts experience for customers, suppliers, and acquisition workforce. We want to create an environment where somebody could go to a marketplace, find the right product for their need, and pay the right price. 

The goal of this strategy is to improve outcomes for suppliers, buyers, and our workforce. 

On Top Management Challenges. The first challenge is talent management. We are confronting a new era of challenges around talent acquisition, engagement, and retention. It is about getting the right people with the right skills engaged in the right kind of work, so that they can thrive and as a result the organization they belong to also thrives.  

Over the last 20 years, we haven’t done a good job positioning government as an exciting place to work. We haven’t done a great job attracting the right people, creating new pathways for entrants, making it easier and faster for them to join. Without a proper pipeline of talent, agencies are going to continue to face shortages of skills we need. For example, we rely heavily on people with contract management and program management skills (e.g., 1102s). These are program managers who oversee complex programs. All these skills are very hard to find. It is a challenge that’s only going to exacerbate unless specific steps are taken to lower the barriers of entry and attract new populations that historically have not engaged in public service before. In the technology space, for example, we have a new program that we started about a year ago called the U.S. Digital Corps that allows early‑stage career professionals in the technology space to come and join government, not as interns, but fully‑blown professionals with real work to do. We’re developing a similar pipeline approach to contracting officers.  

The second challenge involves realizing the benefits of technology modernization. The federal government spends close to $100 billion a year on operating, maintaining, and enhancing its technology systems, but that’s not enough. How we improve our business processes? How do we leverage the power of technology, data, analytics, and machine learning to benefit the business that we’re trying to drive? FAS manages around 75 million products and services on our products catalog. The ability for a human to look at all the products that are being offered by a particular company and navigate over 400 compliance checks. A human can only do that work to a certain level of scale. We have this tremendous potential to train machines to do this routine work at scale and use that insight to enhance human decision-making. 

Given our mission, focusing on customer experience is another key challenge. This goes well beyond a pretty website. It’s about assessing and possibly rethinking the end‑to‑end process our stakeholders use to access services. It is about detailing the experience while identifying the bottlenecks and barriers that get in the way. We continue to reduce these barriers while enhancing the customers experience through better online capabilities.  As leaders, we should have a keen interest in solving such issues while also improving the delivery of services. 

On Leadership. Leaders must be authentic. Being authentic creates an environment that encourages others to be authentic. There are aisles of books on leadership many offer insights into how leaders should prioritize or the best ways to communicate. These are all important skills. Yet, I’ve learned over the years working with great mentors that successful application of such skills rest on a foundation of authenticity. Leaders must also recognize that it is not their job to get lost in detail or assume they should do everything. It is important that leaders hire the right people and have complete confidence that the folks who work for them know more about the problems and solutions than the leader.  When I walk into a room, my internal metric is: “Am I the dumbest person in this room?” If so, I’m in the right room because I get to learn something. I’ll get to ask questions. I want everybody who works for me to possess specialized skills and expertise that exceeds my own. My job as a leader is to be the connective tissue. I take the hits for others so that they can continue to get results and achieve outcomes. 

I think Steve Jobs had a famous line that I’m paraphrasing: complexity is easy; simplicity is hard. To create a product or a service that is simple requires enormous effort because all that effort must be done behind the scenes. At FAS, we maniacally focus on identifying what not to do, what to drop off our lists, and what is less important, so we can dedicate all our efforts on key priorities that facilitate the mission of FAS. It reminds me of the story when President Kennedy visited NASA. He asked a janitor who was working in the facility what he did there. The janitor responded: “I help to land a man on the moon.” This story illustrates the importance of alignment to a single goal. When you have that alignment, magic can happen, and impossible things can be undertaken. Critical to doing this is building a workplace culture. Culture doesn’t happen automatically. Culture is something that happens when you leave the room. When the leader leaves the room, what do people talk about? What do they prioritize? How do they make decisions? That’s culture. It is ultimately the leader’s job to create a culture that will form the right environment of trust and empowerment for people to be effective and thrive. 

On Supply Chain and Cyber Risk. Regarding supply chain risk and resiliency, there are two aspects to this challenge I wanted to highlight. One is the overall security and risk associated with the supply chain. It’s important to under how we can reduce risk over time. The second aspect is resiliency. How can we help our supply base be more resilient in the face of increasing risk exposure from cyber challenges to subsequent supply chain disruption?  

Our top priority is to maximize customer value and mission productivity. We must ensure our acquisitions align with cybersecurity policies and objectives. It’s not just enough for us to say here’s a new regulation and everybody must comply. We must actively go out of our way and reach out to these communities and help them understand and develop internal controls to assess the security of their software. 

For example, the infrastructure bill requires the deployment of some 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations across the nation. Each one of these charging stations are network-connected device. FAS is proactively working with the suppliers in this community to help them understand NIST standards their products must follow, how to comply to them, how to document, test and validate these products at pre-staging. We are doing this to make sure that when an agency purchases a charging station all cybersecurity measures have been tested and are built in. We don’t want to make this burdensome for suppliers. We want to do it in a way that adds value but ensures products and solutions FAS supplies meets the latest federal cybersecurity requirements and standards. 

On Using Data to Make Better Decisions. Our mission is to deliver comprehensive products, services, and solutions that the government needs at the best value and in compliance with appropriate regulations. The federal buying power is an important lever in achieving our key priorities. When agencies buy through FAS, the discounts that we have pre-negotiated consistently far exceed anything an agency can do on their own. 

We are also working to foster a sustainable federal supply chain. This involves increasing security and reducing supply chain risk while also improving opportunities for small businesses. 

We manage this process across tens of thousands of companies and suppliers and millions of products through a data‑driven approach. At FAS, we use data to make better buying decisions When you collect and analyze data you gain insight and become a smarter buyer that can negotiate on multiple dimensions. We are putting all the mechanics in place to do just that. It’s already showing results. We are seeing hundreds of thousands of products that have been in the supply chain that don’t meet our criteria. Working together over the last year, we have removed over 500,000 products from our supply base. 

I am very encouraged how the use of data continues to help us gain better insights into the supply chain process allowing FAS to identify risks more effectively and negotiate better pricing. 

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