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Doan Affirms Commitment to Small Business at Katrina Summit

Remarks by
 Lurita Alexis Doan
Administrator
U.S. General Services Administration
2008 Katrina Economic Development Summit
New Orleans, Louisiana
February 6, 2008


Thank you.  It’s wonderful to be back home. Just about two years ago today I was down on St. Charles Avenue getting ready for Mardi Gras when I got a call from the White House. 

The Office of Presidential Personnel wanted to know if I would answer the call to public service and agree to serve as the first black woman to ever lead the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA).  I’m telling you, that was some call.  I gulped, dropped a bunch of beads I was holding and said yes, I would be honored.  I knew that as Administrator of GSA I would be leading the government’s premier procurement agency, with $56 billion per year in revenues and control of assets worth over 550 billion dollars.  GSA manages 340 million square feet of leased space. It is the world's largest building construction company.  GSA is in charge of more than 400 historic properties, including the New Orleans Customs House. It is the largest credit card service with over $26 billion in credit card transactions every year, one of the nation's largest fleet services, buying on average, 60,000 vehicles a year.

GSA is one of America’s largest furniture stores, one of the nation’s largest warehouses for office supplies, and is among the largest purchasers of technology in the United States.

I also knew that GSA had lost a bit of its mojo; morale was low, and, though many individuals performed heroically, the agency was not properly equipped from an organizational standpoint to properly respond to Hurricane Katrina. Like much of the rest of government, GSA – the organization – was slow to respond, indecisive, and unimaginative.  I think the President wanted a New Orleanian to take the reins of GSA and breathe some new life and energy into its emergency response capabilities. He also wanted someone with roots in the small business world who could leverage that experience.  And that, my friends, is exactly what I have been doing for the past 20 months.  And, I am pleased to provide you with a progress report on our efforts and to outline next steps, particularly as it relates to small business utilization in the Gulf Region.

First, I ordered an immediate reorganization of GSA’s assets to better respond to a future national emergency. Never again should GSA be caught so unprepared.

So we created a new Office of Emergency Response and Recovery and gave it the power to leverage all of GSA’s abilities and assets, infused it with new energy and appointed the very best and most experienced emergency managers.  I am quite proud of this new effort and during the last national emergency, wildfires in California, GSA performed magnificently. 

Next, GSA began to bulldoze over the bureaucratic impediments that were inhibiting small businesses competing for government contracts.  The federal government buys over $400 billion per year in goods and services.  As GSA Administrator, I buy a great deal of those goods and services.  More importantly, I want to buy more of those goods and services from small businesses because they often have the most innovative products that government demands.   But there was so much bureaucracy and red tape involved that small companies were too often unable to navigate the long process.  So, we needed to bring fundamental change and eliminate these impediments.  I am proud of that success. Just two years ago, it took on average 156 days for a small company to apply for and win a GSA schedules contract.  History shows getting on schedule is the most important first step a company can make that wishes to sell to the federal government.  That was terrible, so we hacked the stupid bureaucratic red tape and reduced that time to 30 days. 

Our next step was to push for legislative changes that would allow state and local governments to buy goods and services quickly from GSA.  One of the lessons from Katrina was that there was lots of money available and approved, but it was too complicated and bureaucratic for state and local officials to get those funds committed so that they could buy the goods and services that they needed immediately.  We have fixed that.

I then turned my attention to looking at reasons why so few companies in the Gulf were actually working on rebuilding efforts and learned, to my horror, that because of a whole assortment of often arcane perceptions of the rules and regulations, contracting officers often concluded that they would get in trouble if they specifically favored the bids of smaller local companies.  That, of course, makes absolutely no sense and it needed to be changed. So, I issued a new agencywide order to all contracting officers in GSA that effective immediately, all GSA contracts issued in the Gulf would be specifically earmarked for small, local companies. In the event that no small local company could be found, a waiver would be required by me.  I also let everyone know that waivers would be hard to get. 

GSA also needed to do more to reach out and help small companies in the Gulf to get on the GSA schedule. This allows their goods and services to be purchased not just by GSA, but by the entire federal government.  Hopefully, you have already been to one of the many workshops that we have held and will continue to hold here in New Orleans with our colleagues and friends at the the Small Business Administration (SBA).

More recently, GSA has launched our most ambitious effort ever. If successful, it will completely change the federal procurement process forever.  We are attempting to raise the standard on all government procurements by asking federal contracting officers to take more personal responsibility for each and every procurement they are involved with.  I am interested in whether they took charge, used common sense, and got the best deal for taxpayers.  I want procurement officers who can think and act.  Procurement officers at GSA want that too, but are anxious that even small technical deviations from the book, even when the book makes no sense -- as in a national emergency -- will be a career ender.  I am going to have to earn that trust so that our contracting professionals know management will always stick with a contracting officer who makes a difficult, principled, and responsible decision.  It is going to take some time--- this one is real hard.  But that process has finally started with GSA’s “I’m on it” program.

Now let me talk briefly about what you can do.

How many are already on the GSA schedule?   Ok good, but what about the rest of you?  Your best way of cracking into the government market is to get a GSA schedule.  You have to get on it too. I have a super team here that is going to help you.  But don’t waste anymore time.  Get on it.

Now, last. The most important step you can take is also going to be the most difficult.  I was not here during Katrina, but this lesson comes from Hurricane Betsy. Like everyone else in the lower 9th Ward, my father had a sledgehammer up in the attic that he used to chop a big hole in the roof when the water got high.  He then pushed us all up and out of the house and onto the roof.  I was nine years old, sitting up on the roof with a rope my dad had tied around my waist to keep me from falling off.  I sat up on that roof for almost two days and watched neighbors pets, cows, snakes and all sorts of nasty things float by.  And then, at long last the National Guard showed up to take us off the roof and get us to dry land.

Now here is the curious part…when the National Guard sergeant tried to get me off that roof I was scared.  I kept holding on to that rope. That little boat looked a lot worse than sitting on the roof.  I didn’t want to move. And then my dad told me something I never forgot: "You gotta’ let go.  Have some faith….things are going to be okay…But you gotta’ let go".

I know that in this room there is still much heartache and pain.  But it is time to let go of the past and focus on the future.  If you keep clinging to that rope, you may never embrace the future that is right in front of you.  You gotta’ let go of whatever is holding you back.

For those with the courage and the ability to grasp a better future, your time is now and GSA is going to offer you the first step back.  Opening new opportunities to small businesses in the Gulf is one of my highest and most important priorities.  That is why I am here.  That is why I am in New Orleans so often.  That is why the President appointed a New Orleanian to this job. And that is why I am coming back to repeat this message again and again until you “Get on it.”

So, take advantage of the experts assembled today, and remember GSA is not here today and gone tomorrow. We are here for – and committed to – rebuilding the Gulf Coast as well as a long relationship with all of you who took the time to come out today and learn how to do business with the federal government.

Besides today’s breakout session, we have formed a new partnership with SBA and are providing expert advice one day a month in New Orleans to small firms that want to do work for the federal government.

Also, our regional offices conduct numerous training and outreach sessions throughout the year. They – or our Office of Small Business Utilization in Washington -- can also answer questions by phone and email.

That applies to me as well. Let me hear from you.

You can reach me at:  lurita.doan@gsa.gov

Thank you very much.