January 08, 2018 Alumni profile Dan Tangherlini (AB’90, AM’91) has a résumé that’s distinguished by fiscal and managerial leadership in the public sector. The administrator for the General Services Administration (GSA) until stepping down last year, he was the top official at a federal agency that manages more than $500 billion in federal assets, including about 375 million square feet of real estate. Upon hearing that he’d won the Harris School of Public Policy’s inaugural “Career Achievement” alumni award, Tangherlini offered his perspective on the challenges he faced at the GSA and how his education at Harris prepared him for his current role. Many people have only a vague notion of what the GSA does. What is its role? The role of the GSA is neatly encapsulated in our mission statement, which is “to deliver the best value in real estate, acquisition, and technology services to government and the American people.” Very simply, we manage over a third of a billion square feet of commercial real estate, making us the largest commercial real estate landlord in the world. We also do nearly $60 billion a year in federal acquisition transactions. About 15 percent of the volume of transactions that the federal government does through the commercial marketplace comes through GSA. What’s a typical transaction? There’s no typical transaction. We buy pencils and satellites. Our job is to help agencies find the quickest, easiest, highest-value and lowest-cost means of getting their missions done. We’re constantly looking for ways to leverage the size of the federal government to get a great deal for the American taxpayer. I’ll give you an example of that. We manage nearly a third of the government’s federal fleet. That’s over 200,000 vehicles, and as a result of that scale, we’re able to drive costs down to even below the nongovernmental commercial providers of fleet services that we benchmark ourselves against. Why only one-third? That’s a great question [laughs]. That’s exactly my challenge every day, to figure out how to get agencies to realize when they’re leaving value on the table. GSA is not a mandatory source for most of its services. I have to convince agencies that what we offer is better and more efficient than what that they can get on their own. It’s our job to make sure that we give people that value, explain our benefit, and compete for the opportunity to deliver those services. Is efficiency the beginning and ending here, or does the GSA also partner with the White House to advance policy? I would argue that while we’re always looking at the bottom right-hand corner, we’re also asking questions about what they call the triple bottom line: financial efficiency, resource efficiency, and our impact on society. What I love to say about our energy efficiency programs is that going green saves green. By being smart stewards of our real estate resource, we can also be incredibly forward-leaning in terms of sustainability. We recently renovated a 70-plus-year-old courthouse to generate more electricity than it consumes. This thing is essentially off the grid, it’s zero emissions. We leveraged the value of the investment that the American people already made in building this courthouse and experimented with technology to reduce the cost of that courthouse going forward in terms of energy consumption and social cost. So yes, absolutely, our focus has to be on making sure that we’re continually reducing the cost of government. But that cost has to be measured in several ways. That’s what makes the job particularly interesting and exciting. What areas of focus would you say define your tenure as administrator? I was brought in to take over right after a scandal, a really unfortunate situation in which a number of folks in the organization put together a conference that inappropriately used public funds and conducted themselves in a way—it just looked like these federal employees were mocking members of Congress and celebrating wastefulness and not manifesting the view that our organization is really about saving money and increasing efficiency. There was a longstanding investigation and the report was issued right at the beginning of the presidential election season in 2012, so the political response was immediate and dramatic and substantial. My first job was to stabilize the agency, respond to that crisis, and explain clearly why it would never happen again. I put some processes in place to ensure a much stronger oversight of resources, and then we focused on making sure that our own organization was as efficient as possible. We began to set a new strategic direction, and that went as far as rewriting our mission statement, the one I recited to you earlier. We worked with all 12,000 employees of this organization, using a social media tool that allowed people to make suggestions, vote on alternatives, and finally craft a new mission that’s much tighter and more focused and owned by everyone. So with that, we were then able to say, “OK, let’s get back to work.” What are your current priorities, and what can we expect from the GSA over the next few years? We’ve been focused on reinvesting in our federal buildings and pushing hard to increase our market share in federal acquisitions. On the building side, we’re trying to work with agencies to get a better understanding of what the real estate footprint is, and how they can maximize their utilization of that footprint to drive down costs and push it back into programs or return it to the taxpayer. The president has a goal to freeze the federal footprint. Our goal is actually more ambitious: we want to shrink the footprint, to find opportunities for agencies to co-locate and consolidate. We’ve doubled the number of people in our headquarters building, just as an example. Consolidating out of six leases saves us $24 million in rent a year and about $8 million in operating costs. We did this by pulling down walls and eliminating most of the individual offices, including my own. The office that comes with the position of the administrator is a 1,600-square-foot wood-paneled office with a separate dining room, which we have converted into a shared asset of the entire organization. And I now sit in an open, collaborative space with about 50 other people. Let me move the conversation over to Harris. In what ways did Harris help prepare you for the challenges you face in your challenges you face in your current position? The emphasis on fundamental quantitative skills has been perhaps the most significant and useful bit of academic preparation for all the work I’ve done. The insistence on statistics and quantitative economics and econometrics forced a level of analytical rigor that has been incredibly useful. And being able to provide the analysis succinctly and directly and clearly was a skill that put me in a position of advantage relative to the people I worked with when I left school and landed in the workplace. I got more work as a result. That didn’t feel great at first, but it’s a compliment, and it’s a compliment to the education. So how does it feel to know that the school that provided you with those skills is now honoring you with this alumni award? It’s humbling, it’s a huge honor. I will accept it on behalf of all my classmates and all the great people at Harris who taught me and continue to teach and to do important things in the name of public service.