Denise Roth is clear: “What has always motivated and excited me is being able to work hands-on with people in their communities,” she says.
It’s a guiding principle that has served her well. It has underpinned a professional life which has taken her through a variety of roles, including serving as city manager of Greensboro, North Carolina, through to her most recent position as administrator of the federal government’s General Services Administration (GSA), where she was responsible for a US$27 billion budget and 12,000 employees. Government, it transpires, was her destination of choice from an early age.
“I was inspired to go into public service by my family’s upbringing,” she explains. “I grew up pretty poor in an underclass section of Washington, DC. But the government worked with a local bank to provide my mother with training and job placement as a bank teller. She went from cleaning floors at night to being able to put me through private school. As I grew up, I wanted to create policy that gave people the opportunity to similarly strengthen their circumstances.” And there’s little doubt she succeeded.
From Greensboro to GSA
Roth began her working life as junior recruit in the office of Jim Moran, a Democratic Congressman from Virginia. Subsequent roles in the public and private sectors preceded her appointment as assistant city manager in Greensboro, North Carolina, and then her promotion to city manager in 2011. It was a role she embraced wholeheartedly.
“In Greensboro I had a broad platform to work across the community,” she recalls. “And my previous experience locally – I’d worked for a congressman there and an economic development group – had enabled me to develop many deep connections in the community. So I was able to leverage all the parts of this southern town – whether black or white, professional or working class – to look for ways to help everyone find pride in their community. It was a truly inspiring position and I was loath to leave it – it was only President Obama who could get me to move back to DC.”
The role on offer at GSA was to serve as deputy administrator – a role that gave her operational oversight across the agency’s efforts to manage and support the basic functioning of federal agencies. It does so by providing workplaces through the construction, management and preservation of government buildings, as well as leasing and managing commercial real estate. It also supplies products and technology for government offices and develops government-wide cost-minimising policies. In other words, it operates at the very heart of the US federal government.
Roth hit the ground running. The agency had encountered some turbulence in previous years, but she helped right the ship by consolidating and reforming a variety of IT, human resources, administration and financial functions, saving up to US$200 million over eight years. And a little over a year later she succeeded Dan Tangherlini as administrator.
Roth says that she had three main priorities on assuming the top job. The first was to ensure that the changes she had been overseeing were given time to take root. The second was to ensure that Tangherlini’s efforts and objectives stayed on track, and third, she wanted GSA to serve as a catalyst for community development nationwide – something that was directly traceable to her time in Greensboro.
“I still wanted to be close to the community’s needs and be able to make a real difference in people’s lives,” she explains. “And so we launched a new programme – the ‘Economic Catalyst Initiative’ – which aligned GSA’s building, leasing and relocation plans with the economic development of local communities across the country. From my time as city manager, I knew that communities were looking for job creation, as well as new vitality in certain parts of their towns and cities. GSA houses one million federal employees and I knew we could be an anchor for some of that activity. Bringing federal employees into a new space spurs economic development, as they are going to need amenities like access to transit or food or dry cleaners or prescription pick-up.”
Although she is keen to stress that the needs of the agencies they were supporting always took precedence, she felt that the two could go hand in hand. “We had to get into the nitty-gritty and roll up our sleeves, because it was about changing policy and changing process,” she points out. “You can sit in a room and bounce around good ideas all day long, but actually getting them to implementation involves hard work and gaining the support and trust of stakeholders. Agency leads take the placement of their facilities very seriously, so we had to find partnerships, and even though GSA had the authority to relocate them, it is never that straightforward.”
As part of this new approach, Roth and her colleagues also sought to make underutilised federal property available for redevelopment by the private sector. “Some property is not fully used due to things like mission changes or workforce cutbacks,” she points out. “For example, the Navy Yard in Washington, DC was an old munitions site and a storm water pumping station site, but now it is a thriving waterfront with retail and hotels. This only occurred after a really large effort to change it from federal land. There are other opportunities around the country for this transition, and it is exciting if people and different tiers of government come to the table to help make it happen.”
Times of transition
Roth stepped down from the GSA at the conclusion of the Obama presidency – but only after she had helped oversee a smooth transition to the incoming administration. “It was an interesting process,” she reflects with perhaps some understatement. “The transition team started small, but it grew as we got closer to inauguration day because we needed to provide the incoming administration with everything from payroll support to office space. The time between Election Day and inauguration was only 73 days, and the last thing we wanted as an agency was to be the reason why the transition didn’t work smoothly. We spent a lot of time anticipating what the need was and then trying to provide for it.”
The effort to ensure a soft landing for the new administration even extended to housing the incoming president and vice president and their teams in GSA headquarters itself. “We moved all of our staff out of one wing of the building and dedicated it to them,” says Roth. “Our thinking was that it would save money and deliver a space which could be flipped into transition mode every four or eight years. We would also have the luxury of knowing the space – it was our turf, so we would know how things worked. Plus, if anything was missing, we could just go next door rather than having to hike across town.”
A few months on from stepping out of public service – for the time being, at least – Roth can now be found in the private sector working as a senior advisor to WSP USA, a global engineering and construction management firm. She will be focusing on urban revitalisation, smart cities, performance measures, and organisation development for private and public clients.
“I want to explore how cities and states can better leverage federal property,” she says. “At GSA, I appointed one of the first chief data officers in the federal government, and one of the things I had the team build for me was an executive dashboard. When I would travel around the country, I could go to a mayor and show them all the federal properties in their community – which typically meant that the federal government was their largest employer. Too often, government was seen as somehow ominous rather than something to be welcomed into their community. And I want that to change – starting now.”
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