The Rundown

Missouri’s Robin Carnahan vows to modernize government IT systems as agency chief

By: - June 14, 2021 1:00 am

Former Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (photo submitted).

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the General Services Administration, former Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, told senators Thursday that she was “horrified” by the slow pace of federal pandemic relief.

While Congress responded to the crisis with new programs and resources, in too many instances, that help was not fast enough in reaching families due to outdated technology systems, she said.

“We can’t implement government policy if we can’t make the damn websites work,” she told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee during her confirmation hearing.

If confirmed to run an agency tasked with supporting federal agencies, including their technology needs, Carnahan said one of her priorities would be working to shore up the “fragility” of the government’s digital infrastructure.

She would harness the resources of the $20 billion, 12,000-employee GSA to not only improve the operations of federal agencies, but also to seek ways to assist state governments, Carnahan said.

The state unemployment systems that were overwhelmed during the coronavirus pandemic have many similarities, Carnahan said, adding that she would look for ways to support shared services “that don’t have to be reinvented and rebuilt and paid for by taxpayers over and over again in every state.”

Carnahan, 59, comes from a long line of Missouri politicians.

Her father, Mel Carnahan, served as governor and her mother, Jean Carnahan, became the first woman to serve as a U.S. senator for Missouri. Her brother, Russ, was a member of Congress, as was her grandfather, Albert Sidney Johnson Carnahan.

She comes into the appointed role with significant familiarity with the GSA and with the challenges of modernizing government technology.

From 2016 to 2020, she founded and led the State and Local Government Practice at 18F, which is a digital services agency within GSA that collaborates with other agencies to help them build and buy technology.

Before that, she served as Missouri’s secretary of state from 2005 to 2013.

Carnahan told senators Thursday that on her first day in that role, she met more people manually opening mail and preparing checks to be deposited than there were working in the IT department.

That disparity “crystallized” for her the challenge ahead: using digital tools to streamline government, she said.

Introducing Carnahan at Thursday’s Senate hearing was a fellow Missourian, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, who defeated her in the 2010 Senate race.

He praised Carnahan’s work as secretary of state — a role that Blunt and his son, Matt, also held — saying she utilized technology to save government money and improve service.

“Robin Carnahan understands the GSA and she understands the importance of the GSA to the country,” Blunt said.

Carnahan would take over the agency as it grapples with an aspect of post-pandemic life that’s also challenging private-sector businesses: the role of remote work, and how much physical offices are needed.

The GSA is responsible for managing federal office space, and Carnahan said it will be “a very big deal” for the federal agencies to rethink their long-term office needs.

Task forces are in the process of evaluating what that looks like, and the number of employees who need to be on-site day-to-day will vary across agencies, she added.

“I think this really is a long-term issue that we’re going to be dealing with in the government, and we need to get it right.”

The Senate panel is scheduled to vote next week on advancing Carnahan’s nomination to the Senate floor.

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Laura Olson
Laura Olson

Laura covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Ohio Capital Journal. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.

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