US president Joe Biden names pick to lead General Services Administration

By on 07/04/2021 | Updated on 07/04/2021
US president Joe Biden has named Robin Carnahan as his pick to lead the General Services Administration. Credit: Adam Schultz / Biden for President / Flickr

US president Joe Biden has chosen digital government veteran Robin Carnahan as his pick to lead the federal government’s procurement agency.

In a statement posted on the White House website on Tuesday, Biden announced that he was nominating Carnahan for the position of administrator at the General Services Administration (GSA).

As the head of the agency, Carnahan will oversee more than 11,000 staff, a 370 million square foot property portfolio, and around $75 billion in annual contracts.

Tech pioneer

Carnahan is an established figure in the US government technology sector and was named one of the federal government’s “top women in tech” in 2017, according to the White House statement.

One goal of the GSA is to improve how agencies purchase, develop and use technology. Carnahan is particularly experienced in this: between 2016 and 2020, she founded and led the state and local government practice at 18F, a widely-respected digital services agency in the US government.

Carnahan could bring new perspectives to the role. For example, while at 18F she advocated for “modular contracting” as an alternative to the traditional, complex, long-term contracts that characterise government IT. Instead, modular contracts break up procurement into interlinked, smaller projects, with the aim of improving flexibility and transparency.

18F’s recent work includes a project with Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services. This was aimed at helping the department better respond to changes in policy that affect the eligibility of their users for public benefit programmes like Medicaid. Their outdated software was making this difficult and part of 18F’s solution was helping the state to launch its first modular procurement.

In a blog she co-authored in 2017, Carnahan compared monolithic, often opaque technology contracts with The Wizard of Oz. The wizard stands behind a curtain to project an impression of mystery and power, only to be revealed as an old man.

“The familiarity of practices around monolithic contracting can be comforting… and it’s certainly tempting to believe that risk and responsibility can be outsourced to a single all-powerful wizard (aka vendor) in hopes they’ll make all the problems disappear,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, a peek behind the curtain shows us otherwise.”

History of controversy

Carnahan’s predecessor as GSA administrator, Emily Murphy, resigned earlier this year as the administration transitioned from Donald Trump to Biden. But just a day later the inspector general criticised the agency for “impeding” investigations into its COVID-19 activities.

The GSA “established a centralized review and approval process of all audit team inquiries that has compromised the integrity of information provided by GSA personnel,” the inspector general wrote.

Murphy was also criticised last year for taking more than two weeks after Biden’s election victory to formally begin the transition process. At the time, Murphy said she “came to my [her] decision independently, based on the law and available facts,” and denied being pressured by Trump or other officials to delay the transition.

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