Biden should grant GSA Cabinet-level status — and its independence

Biden should grant GSA Cabinet-level status — and its independence
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The General Services Administration (GSA), one of the least known but important agencies in the federal government, is having its time in the spotlight, and the warts are being exposed. While most know the GSA as the leader in government acquisition, real estate and technology — and now, for its role in presidential transitions — the current administrator’s refusal to ascertain Joe BidenJoe BidenMilitary must better understand sexual assaults to combat them The Hill's Equilibrium — Presented by NextEra Energy — Tasmanian devil wipes out penguin population On The Money: Democrats make full-court press on expanded child tax credit | White House confident Congress will raise debt ceiling MORE as president-elect is the most recent example of its relegation to a subservient agency with little independence and complete fealty to West Wing whims.

As weak as the agency now seems, Biden will need an effective and creative GSA to help execute large portions of his “Build Back Better” agenda such as combating the coronavirus, executing his Buy American plan, and overhauling federal technology to help agencies more competently and capably deliver important government services. Biden would do well to rectify the problems at the core of the GSA and ensure that the agency has the independence, mission and authority to be the critical adviser and partner in his most ambitious efforts.

Federal-wide policy ideas — regardless of how well-conceived they might be — often end rather than begin with critical questions about how the policy will be implemented. The GSA, long a dumping ground for various White House or ​​Office of Management and Budget (OMB) ​pet projects, has become the go-to answer. “Just make GSA do it” has been the current administration’s recommendation, even though some senior officials may have little idea of the GSA’s budget, personnel or operational capacity for execution. Without having its proper seat at the table, the GSA has been forced to find staff and funding to dedicate to new parochial ideas.


The most visible example of this problem was the failed merger of the Office of Personnel Management into the GSA. The OMB’s ill-conceived, and potentially illegal, reorganization forced the GSA to spend two years of effort and hundreds of thousands of dollars planning for this aborted idea. The OMB’s insistence that the GSA continue to execute the merger, even after being denied authority and funding by Congress, created adversaries on Capitol Hill who previously had been among the GSA’s biggest supporters.

Other examples fit this pattern. Junior staff in the White House influenced personnel decisions at the GSA’s Technology Transformation Service and dictated their priorities at the expense of the GSA administrator. The OMB crafted a sprawling management agenda, often untethered from the president’s budget, and left the GSA to attempt implementation of it without additional resources and agency support. And who could forget the GSA’s selection of the Trump Organization to develop the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue into a hotel

A big reason that more than 79 million Americans supported Biden’s election is his decades of experience in Washington. Many voters apparently hope that he can make the government operate in an effective, efficient manner that puts their needs first and delivers results. The GSA can play a vital role in fulfilling these demands.

Thankfully, Biden has appointed a GSA review team with several alumni of the agency who understand the value the GSA provides as a strategic adviser and executor of well-developed policy priorities. This team would be wise to reimagine the agency’s expertise and design a robust set of recommendations for the presidential transition, with a special emphasis on rejecting the recent relegation of the GSA as the “just do it” organization.

Biden must transform the GSA from a landing pad for West Wing wishes into the competent, creative agency his administration will need to help execute many parts of his agenda. For example, the GSA will have a central role in ensuring that the government’s operations evolve to support current and future business processes forever changed by the pandemic. Additionally, the GSA has assumed important authority such as helping to secure American supply chains, fund government-wide information technology modernization initiatives, and ensure fairness and competition in federal procurement, especially for small businesses. These should be the core mission objectives of the GSA and, conveniently, they dovetail with Biden’s priorities.


Starting on day one, Biden can take concrete steps to demonstrate support for the GSA’s important role in the federal government and reassert its independence. He should nominate an administrator who values and understands the agency’s importance and will work to build an inclusive, collaborative organization that delivers excellent outcomes for its stakeholders. Biden should insist that the administrator be purposefully included in critical interagency decision-making. Ultimately, he would be wise to finally grant the GSA Cabinet-level status.

Thousands of American businesses and millions of federal employees rely on a thoughtful, efficient GSA for their livelihoods. Soon, Biden will need the agency to help execute critical priorities in his agenda. He would do well to liberate the GSA from subservience and empower it to help lead the competent, capable and effective administration of his government that all Americans deserve.

Matthew T. Cornelius is executive director of the Alliance for Digital Innovation. He served as a senior official in the past two administrations, including working in the Office of the GSA Administrator and later as a senior adviser at the Office of Management and Budget. The views expressed here are his alone.