The Blend of Judo & Kabuki That's Driving Sustainability at GSA

As a crucial part of his ambitious goal to turn the federal government into a leader in green practices, President Obama has turned to an unexpected resource to help drive the effort: the government's purchasing and property arm, the General Services Administration.

martha johnsonThe GSA's administrator, Martha Johnson, was picked to lead this mission as head of the giant agency last February. Speaking at the State of Green Business Forum in Washington, D.C. yesterday, Johnson asserted that the twin challenges of fiscal pressure and sustainability goals are perfectly matched to create change at an organization better known for its role as buying agent for some $90 billion worth of government materials and manager of half a million federal buildings.

"One of the things about sustainability in government which is so beautiful is… it talks about 'no waste'," Johnson said. Focusing on sustainability reframes the discussion away from negative connotations of cost cutting towards positive attitudes about constructive change.

"The government has a choice," she added. "We are either under this screw of cutting costs, or we can judo it and say: Let's be about sustainability, less waste in the system, and more intelligent use of resources. It really changes about how we think about tax payer dollar. That is a huge shift."

State of Green Business

Mere months after entering office, Johnson and her leadership team unveiled a goal of reducing the agency's environmental footprint to zero. It's a vision that wowed many, and mystified some, in the green community, given its audacious scope and the uncertainty of just how to achieve it.

Yet for Johnson, it's the sort of "stretch goal" that the agency is ready for. "Of course we don't know how to get to zero environmental footprint," said Johnson. "If you knew how to do it, you should be doing it already."

Big goals inspire staff and animate new thinking about old ways of operating, she added: "It's very much like President Kennedy talking about the moonshot. I don't mean to be grandiose or anything, but that's helpful."

With a background in the private sector heavy with "organizational transformation" experience, Johnson regards greening the GSA as serious challenge that can help lead practices elsewhere in the economy.

In the past, huge goals have acted as pole stars, inspiring change and spreading from industry to industry, such as "total quality" or "total safety." "That north star notion," she said, "That's what zero environmental footprint is about."

Steps toward this goal are multiplying across the agency's operations. As part of the Recovery Act, for example, the agency was awarded $5 billion to retrofit federal buildings with greener technology.