GCN AWARDS | Civilian Executive of the Year
Martha Dorris propels GSA into a new-media age
Effort to incorporate Web 2.0 and social media tools puts agency ahead of the curve
- By Richard W. Walker
- Oct 12, 2009
It’s not easy keeping up with Martha Dorris. Just ask her colleagues.
“She is constantly traveling at about 100 miles an hour,” said Kenneth Allen, executive director of the American Council for Technology/Industry Advisory Council. “She never slows down for a minute, and not just in her professional life. She’s constantly on the go. I don’t think Martha knows how to slow down and rest. I’m not sure when she sleeps.”
“We don’t keep up with her,” said Darlene Meskell, director of intergovernmental solutions at the General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Communications. “We try to stay out of her way. We have grown to dread her idea storms because it means we have a lot more work to do.”
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Meskell was kidding about the idea storms, but she did say Dorris is “always thinking, she’s always involved and always pushing the envelope. She is always looking to do a little more of everything.”
Dorris, deputy associate administrator of OCSC and former president of the American Council for Technology, isn’t so sure about the exact speed. “I don’t feel like I go 100 miles an hour, but people think I do,” she said. “I feel like I’m a person never satisfied with where we are, so I’m always trying to take two seconds off the clock.”
One way Dorris pushes the envelope is through the deployment of leading-edge technologies at OCSC, an effort that has put GSA ahead of other federal agencies in the tech game in the view of many observers. “She has just done an amazing job [at GSA] at pushing the boundaries through using technology to build the relationship between government and citizens,” Allen said.
Under Dorris’ leadership this year, to cite a prominent example, GSA shifted USA.gov, the federal government’s behemoth information portal, to a cloud computing platform. The move is expected to slash management costs and provide the site with a more flexible infrastructure. But it wasn’t just a question of flipping on a new technology like a switch. GSA officials had to overcome a bugbear familiar to government IT executives — organizational or cultural resistance, Dorris said.
“Most [of the challenges] were internal within my own office,” she said. “The typical cultural issues were around people not having the servers under their desks anymore…[but] I think moving USA.gov to the cloud was a great accomplishment. It was amazing that we did what we did.”
Dorris also is an indefatigable advocate of using Web 2.0 and social media tools to connect with the government’s constituents, incorporating Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages into OCSC’s portfolio of sites. “Our traffic is growing tremendously in those areas,” she said.
But introducing Web 2.0 applications and social media also involves obstacles. For instance, a few years ago, when officials wanted to launch a USA.gov project involving YouTube, they went to GSA’s legal department for review. The lawyers, Dorris recalled, asked: “What is YouTube?”
Since then, however, “we’ve gone from the challenge of educating our legal staff to now having our legal staff helping us negotiate terms of service with 25 new-media providers,” she said. “So part of the challenge is just getting people to understand it.”
With Dorris’ encouragement, OCSC’s USA Services Intergovernmental Solutions (IS) division is using new media to improve communications among information professionals from foreign governments. For example, IS officials recently created a Facebook page so that participants in North America Day, an annual convention for e-government leaders from the U.S., Canada and Mexico, could network and exchange ideas all year long.
“The world is ready for this kind of approach and [Dorris] is right there with it,” Meskell commented.
After creating the Facebook page, IS officials put up photos of the latest North America Day gathering and “friended” Dorris. Soon after that, they were amused to find that Dorris had posted photos of her bichon dogs on the page, Meskell said.
“She was being playful about it,” Meskell said. “She’s using [Facebook] with a spirit it intended, encouraging people to be more personal with each other. [North America Day participants] are pretty senior folks and tend to be serious, but it’s showing them that one can be light-hearted on a serious page.”
That kind of leadership style can connect with constituents and colleagues, and serve to overcome hurdles to achieving organizational objectives.
“I like to have fun,” Dorris said. “I like for people to be excited about what they do. I want to work in an organization and run an organization where people like to come to work. So fun is a big part of it. It’s a work value.”
Dorris also puts a premium on open and honest communication. “You can’t create a high-performing organization where you have engaged and connected people in the workplace if you’re not open and give people a safe place to be honest when they need to be,” she said. “Trust and communication in an office are probably the most critical components to creating a high-performing organization.”
She also values teamwork and said she is “not a big hierarchical person. I’ve always believed that we’re one big team. Managers in my office don’t like that all the time, so we’ve kind of struck a deal on how that would work. I like to know the people in my office and I like to be included in the brainstorming.”
Dorris said she has learned bedrock values of authenticity and humility in leadership over the course of a career at GSA that began in 1978, when she started as a GS-4 clerk-typist. It began as a summer job while she was attending a local community college. When GSA offered her a part-time position that let her finish her college coursework, she grabbed it.
After graduating, Dorris went to work full time at GSA and soon enrolled in computer programmer training, which put her on the path to the information technology field. She later moved to the Federal Conversion Support Center, the forerunner to the Federal Systems Integration and Management Center, and then back to GSA, where she reviewed Army acquisitions. She left government in 1986 for two and a half years at Booz Allen Hamilton to do government acquisition consulting before returning to GSA as a GS-14 to do IT acquisition oversight.
Subsequently, Dorris worked in the Office of Intergovernmental Solutions, which in 2002 was absorbed into the newly created Office of Citizen Services and Communications. She was named to her current position five years ago.
Despite her rise up the steep slope from clerk-typist to the executive ranks at GSA, Dorris remains unassuming. “I feel like I’m in the early stages of developing into a major leader,” she said. “I know I have lots to learn.”