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White House on fed websites: Keep it simple, stupid

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I’m at the General Services Administration’s Government Web and New Media Conference today, listening to administration officials talk about open government, social media, and how to best use technology to reach the public. And one point keeps coming up: When it comes to websites and other programs, keep it simple, stupid.

OK, so White House CIO Vivek Kundra and GSA Administrator Martha Johnson didn’t use those words exactly. But their message was clear: The public is increasingly using iPhones and other mobile devices that have trouble with overly-complex webpages. And if the federal government wants to reach citizens through those avenues, simplicity is key. But as Kundra said, that’s not as easy as it sounds:

What becomes really, really important all of a sudden is to figure out, how do you simplify the interaction? A lot of people confuse simplicity with a lack of engineering rigor. It’s actually the opposite. The simpler interaction is, on certain platforms, more complex. The underlying architecture, the engineering. And part of what we’re trying to do is drive toward that vision.

A little later, Johnson echoed Kundra’s point. She said that when agencies build websites and other tools for customers, they should remember exactly what those customers need and not shoehorn in fancy new features when something simpler will do:

I have two children, and when they were younger, I had to think twice about whether it was a toy that they wanted, or it was something that they needed. I think we get quite enamored with our technology toys, but we really need to pay attention to what our customers need. What we need more is a back-and-forth conversation, not a lot of really sophisticated toys that really swamp the user.

I want GSA to lead by example in all this. I want us to have the best website. I want a really, truly, GSA for Dummies website, where people can find what they need, without having to tackle a lot of complicated paths.

What do you think? Have federal websites gotten too complicated and taken with whiz-bang bells and whistles? Are those wonderful toys hampering your ability to reach all corners of the public?

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What’s next for GSA?

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Martha Johnson, administrator for the General Services Administration, spoke with reporters this afternoon at FOSE. She’s only been in the job for about two months and is learning where the agency should go. GSA is at a “crossroads,” she said, and can either stay the same or fight to grow. She thinks it should grow and improve communications and responsiveness with the needs of both agencies and companies who contract with GSA.

What’s in our hands and what I’ve got some real sense of is the whole notion of upping our performance, simply cleaning up and performing better for our clients, being more responsive, helping people find what they need more quickly and understanding of where they can get the best value for the right price. That’s where I’ll be spending my time.”

She also said she’d like to help expand telework across the federal government. During February’s East Coast Snowmageddon, 60 percent of GSA employees teleworked. She’d like to work more with the Office of Personnel Management to provide equipment and services for agencies looking to step up their telework offerings, she said.

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At GSA, a special kind of telework

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The General Services Administration’s new chief was sworn in Sunday night by telephone, an agency spokeswoman told FedLine today. Now that’s what I call teleworking!

Acting administrator Stephen Leeds administered the oath to Martha Johnson over the phone  because of the snow that pummeled the D.C. area Friday and Saturday, the spokeswoman said.

The storm forced the closure of D.C. federal offices yesterday and today, and in doing so also forced GSA to cancel Johnson’s swearing in ceremony and a town-hall meeting with employees planned for today.

GSA rescheduled the ceremony and town hall for next Tuesday.

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Tomorrow is D-Day for GSA Nominee

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The Senate is expected to vote on Pres. Obama’s choice to lead the General Services Administration tomorrow. Or at least invoke cloture, a procedure to end debate about whether Martha Johnson is qualified to run the government’s procurement and real estate agency.

The Senate convenes at noon, and according to the calendar, the cloture vote  on Johnson’s nomination will occur after the chamber votes on the nomination of Patricia Smith to be solicitor for the Labor Department. If cloture is invoked, a final vote on Johnson’s nomination will follow.

Johnson’s nomination has been delayed by Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo. Bond held up the confirmation vote because he wanted GSA to promise to move a federal complex to downtown Kansas City, Mo.

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Hill Staff Director Named GSA Deputy

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Starting Feb. 2, Susan Brita will be the new deputy administrator of the General Services Administration, FedLine has learned.

Brita is the staff director for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management. The subcommittee has oversight of GSA’s Public Building Service and federal real property management.

She replaces Barney Brasseux, a GSA career veteran, who recently retired.

This announcement fills one gap in the agency’s leadership team which has seen an unusual amount of turnover in recent weeks.

Just before Christmas, Stephen Leeds took over the role of acting administrator from Paul Prouty, who decided to return home to Colorado and to his career post as GSA’s Region 8 Public Building Service commissioner.

Earlier this month, Danielle Germain, the agency’s chief of staff, resigned to head up the Collaboration Project at the National Academy of Public Administration. In making the move, Germain said the hold Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., has maintained on Martha Johnson’s confirmation to lead GSA was a factor in her decision. Bond’s hold on the final approval of Johnson’s nomination means the agency has been without a permanent administrator since 2008.

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Kempf is new GSA FAS deputy

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Steven Kempf is the new deputy commissioner for the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service, FedLine has learned.

Kempf, who most recently served as the assistant commissioner for the FAS Office of Acquisition Management, replaces Tyree Varnado, who recently retired. Kempf will continue to serve as assistant commissioner of FAS’s office of acquisition management until a replacement is named.

Kempf joined GSA in 1992.  FAS sells more than $53 billion worth of goods and services to federal agencies each year.

Read the rest of this entry »

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A smoke-free outdoors?

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Rep. Eliot Engel is trying again to ban smoking near federal buildings.

The New York Democrat unsuccessfully introduced a bill during the last Congress to ban smoking within 25 feet of any federal building’s entrances, exits, windows that can be opened and ventilation intakes. Engel reintroduced the bill Nov. 18 to correspond with the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smoke Out smoking-cessation campaign.

The Surgeon General reported in 2006 that there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. One step we can take in limiting such exposure is to free the entrances of buildings of the clouds of smoke often found when smokers gather outside of entrances and exits. The problem with this is simple – how else are people going to avoid secondhand smoke when the only ways in and out of a building is blocked by smoke?”

The bill would clarify various levels of guidance involving smoking near federal buildings. The General Services Agency banned smoking in courtyards and within 25 feet of doorways at GSA-controlled buildings, effective June 19, 2009.

A 1997 executive order banned smoking in all Executive Branch buildings, as well as all inside space owned, rented or leased by the Executive Branch.

What say you, feds? Is smoking an annoyance at your workplace? Or are you a smoker that would be annoyed by any new regulations?

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GSA merges Chief Acquisition and Governmentwide Policy Offices

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The General Services Administration is consolidating its Office of Governmentwide Policy and Office of the Chief Acquisition Officer, the agency will announce later today. The move comes one day after the agency appointed Michael Robertson to lead both offices.

Since the two offices share a common mission of developing procurement policies, merging them will better coordinate these efforts, improving the agency’s ability to manage taxpayer dollars, GSA said in a statement to Federal Times.

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Senate stimulus: Fewer funds for feds

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A group of Republican and Democratic senators trimmed nearly $100 billion from the economic stimulus package over the last few days. Most economists say the cuts are a bad idea, because the smaller the stimulus bill, the less stimulative its effect on the economy. (Think of driving up an icy hill: If you’re not going fast enough, you slide back down.)

Federal managers might not like the cuts, either: The revised Senate stimulus plan eliminates billions of dollars that were allocated for federal agencies.

One of the biggest cuts will hurt the General Services Administration. The House stimulus bill gives GSA almost $7 billion to make federal buildings more energy-efficient. The Senate version cuts that in half — to $3.5 billion.

Other items cut from the Senate plan:

  • $122 million for the Coast Guard’s new polar icebreakers;
  • $200 million for new screening equipment for the Transportation Security Administration;
  • $75 million from the Smithsonian, which the institution would have used for capital improvements (the House bill included $150 million);
  • $200 million for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program;
  • $200 million for the National Science Foundation;
  • $1 billion for Head Start.

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Transition Watch: More Noontime Changes

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Change.gov will become WhiteHouse.gov just after noon tomorrow, according to Agence France-Presse.

Many believe Change.gov to be emblematic of how President-elect Barack Obama will use the Web to advance his priorities of a more participatory and transparent democracy.

Over the next few days other federal Web sites will also start to look a bit different as dozens of familiar names, like Michael Chertoff and Condoleezza Rice, are erased from government Web sites and replaced with the new administration officials, like Janet Napolitano or Hillary Clinton.

The process is likely to be quick, said Casey Coleman, chief information officer for the General Services Administration. GSA plans to have all the names of Bush-era political appointees off the agency’s site and replaced with acting career officials or Obama appointees within 48 hours of the inauguration. Many of the names will change a lot faster than that, she said.

With the exception of a Google Web cache, this may be the last time Bush-era agency appointees see their names on government Web sites. The National Archives and Records Administration will not do a Web harvest of pre-Obama sites, an agency spokeswoman said.

Instead, if an agency determines that its Bush-era Web pages must be persevered under NARA’s Guidance for Managing Web Records, the agency will follow the rules set out in this handy archiving guide.

This guidance, of course, does not apply to Bush’s WhiteHouse.gov, which falls under the Presidential Records Act.

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