Vantage Points: Keith Anderson

Keith Anderson is the Director of the Department of General Services for the District of Columbia.

Can you tell me about your current organization, and your role in it?

I have the honor of serving as Director of the Department of General Services for the District of Columbia.  Our mission is to build, maintain, and sustain the District’s real estate portfolio, which includes more than 157 million square feet of land and 35.7 million square feet of state-of-the-art facilities.

This work allows the agency to foster economic viability, environmental stewardship, and equity across all eight (8) wards.

So, I am privileged to work with and on behalf of more than 700 skilled employees across our six divisions – Capital Construction, Contracts & Procurement, Sustainability + Energy, Facilities Management, Portfolio Management, and Protective Services.  Our annual budget exceeds $1 billion.  

Leading this agency is a big task but I could not be more happy and pleased with what we have been able to do and with the workforce we have developed here to serve the needs of DC residents.

How did you get to where you are now, what has your life/work journey looked like?

Timing is everything, and my path has not been traditional.   I began my government service nearly 20 years ago, by working in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer.  I began there to understand how government works from a financial, dollars and sense, perspective.  

That type of knowledge is really important and gives you an advantage in whatever government role you play.  I became a senior budget analyst there and then shifted to the program side, focusing more on energy policy issues for the City.   Energy and sustainability are critical to the District, and we have worked hard to help DC become a LEED Platinum City.

I then came over to lead the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR).  DPR teaches you how to connect with each and every community and group in the District from infants to seniors, from Georgetown to the Gateway.  

That role really helped me see the city where I was born and raised from a different standpoint.  It was a fun job, and a pleasure to help build bridges between people and places, to start and implement programs, and to construct new facilities.

How have your past experiences prepared you for the work you do today?

I always worked very hard, but I worked for some great people and was always willing to learn.  In each new role, I had to stretch myself a little bit more.  I became used to putting myself into positions where I had to ask, “can I really do this?”   What is neat, is that my past roles in finance, or on energy policy and in leading parks and recreation – all of these past experiences helped me gain knowledge and understanding that are core parts of my daily work here and now at the Department of General Services (DGS).  We get to help build assets in the city for the generations to follow.

What about your organization/work might others be surprised to learn about?

There is not a day that goes by that I don’t learn something new.  I was surprised to discover that it is important to see DGS as not only about maintaining facilities or building construction.

Instead, I have come to understand how to look at our agency from a portfolio perspective.  How do we best leverage our assets and buying power in the present, but also with future generations in mind? It was a pleasant surprise to learn about how our assets portfolio is such a powerful tool for change and growth.  

For instance, we are using our buying power to move our DGS agency headquarters to an underserved area in southeast DC.  This is in keeping with Mayor Muriel Bowser’s pledge to move more government offices and workers to the areas east of the Anacostia [River].

This move will spur additional development and investment in that area, and help bring jobs and daily activity to the neighborhood.   We have to make smart decisions like that about our buying and purchasing power, to help our communities and people thrive.  We are proud to be a part of the success of our neighborhoods. 

What are three words that describe you as a leader or agent of change?

I would say communicate, serve, and execute. 

Communication is a key.  It is so important to listen.  The reality of it is that in any and every relationship the most effective way to communicate is to listen first.  My grandmother taught me that, “you’ll learn everything you want to learn if you use your five senses and talking isn’t one of them.”  In my work, we have to listen to clients, to constituents, and even to critics.  

Service is also important.  In order to lead you must serve.  My job is to help the 700 or so employees here, all of my co-workers.  How do I help them be better successful at their jobs?  If I can help them succeed and lead, then we will all gain.  

The ability to execute is crucial.  The bottom line is you have to execute.  For me, I have to make decisions, sometimes they will be good, sometimes bad, and sometimes indifferent or unknown.  But being willing to make the decision and address the effects of that decision is what helps our work move forward.  

What issue or issues most concern you right now, or what are you working on? 

There is a lot going on now in our city, nation, and world.  In the first six months of 2020, we have seen the equivalent or more of the 1918 or so Spanish flu epidemic, the protests or movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and the economic disruption and job losses of the Great Depression.   And it is not over, we are still going through it. 

From where we began in January, we have made lots of progress.  For us, it began with ensuring that we are protecting our employees.  Since COVID 19 became part of our lives, we have learned a lot, including the importance of some fairly simple things – wear masks, don’t touch your face, wash hands regularly. Safety is at the top of our list for those working in and visiting our facilities and employees.  Still, we are continuing to learn, to follow the science, and to implement best practices.

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The good news is that, although we slowed down, construction never stopped.   Our work never stopped.  DGS right now has approximately 400 active projects, ranging anywhere from ADA compliance upgrades to full-on new construction of schools and other facilities.  Significant investment is tied to those projects, and they play an important role in our economy.   The District has a goal of working with local businesses, prioritizing local vendors for certain contracts.  The projects inject significant local dollars right back into our economy.

Mayor Bowser has been very clear about the need to protect everyone working on these projects while also finding a way for work to continue.   Our work, and these projects, are a critical piece of our economic recovery.  The projects themselves meet real needs, so our focus is to protect people AND keep projects going.  And we have done that, in a difficult and uncertain environment.  We have played our part to lessen some of the negative effects from the pandemic.  Our city has taken a hit – we have a $700 million or so shortfall this year but the losses could have been even greater if we had not been able to keep work happening and local dollars flowing in our economy, helping businesses and households.  

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The movement for greater racial justice and equality has been very present here.  And, I stand with those who are standing up for their voice.   From a DGS perspective, it did not affect operations.  We did take steps to protect some public buildings and that did spark conversation among us here at DGS.  I sent an email to staff about it.  I wanted to put out a positive message out there about how we protected both people’s safety and their rights to free speech and assembly.  Also, some people here needed to talk and we tried to ensure that employees had access to services for mental and emotional health and wellbeing if they needed them. 

Can you share an example of your work, perhaps a recent project or initiative you find particularly meaningful or noteworthy? 

Cities mean so many things to so many people.  DGS literally touches every part of the city – through parks and recreation, schools, and public buildings.  For me, as a native Washingtonian, all of this work is important.  If I could point to one that has long been an interest and passion for me, it is mental and emotional health.

When I was director of the Department of Parks and Recreation, we would listen to community residents to find out what they wanted to see from a programmatic standpoint or what they would like to see in parks and playgrounds.  We would often hear that we had done a great job of building facilities and playgrounds for active recreation.  But people in the urban spaces we have here, people sometimes wanted more nearby spaces they could visit for quiet and relaxation and contemplation.  

So, we developed more of what some have called pocket parks or triangle parks, and gave these spaces a focus on contemplation as local meditation gardens.  We opened the first one in the Petworth neighborhood at the corner of Kansas Avenue and Quincy Street, NW.  

Often these spaces are no more than a half acre but we located them strategically within neighborhoods.  These were relatively easy to maintain, as all we had to do was provide lawn and landscaping care.  In doing so, we learned a lot about mental health and the ways that nature and green space can contribute to wellbeing, particularly in a bustling, vibrant city like ours. 

Here at DGS, I am also excited about our continued focus on energy efficiency and sustainability.  We work to ensure the District is on the right path to achieve energy efficiency goals and standards.  Recent legislation here on more energy efficient buildings will continue to reinforce and expand the work we are already doing.  We are a part of the team that helped D.C. become one of the world’s few LEED Platinum cities.   We build nothing unless it is at least a ‘LEED Silver’ project.   We also have an aggressive plan for solar energy development.  Again, it is about how we best use our resources here, and manage our portfolio, for the greater good of all of our current residents, as well as future generations. 

What are you excited about, where are you finding hope?

I am inherently optimistic about all things.   Despite what we hear, there are so many good people in this world.  I have seen how folks here have geared up to address, mitigate and combat this virus.   I believe that we will all get through this.   By continuing to be steadfast and maintaining good social distancing practices, we will eventually reach a turning point.

What lesson or advice from your work and experiences might others find helpful?

The three words I shared earlier (communicate, serve, and execute) are all lessons I learned from other leaders.  I have been in so many situations where people were talking past each other and not listening.  When leaders do that, it can be particularly problematic.  It is important that people see and feel that directors or leaders are really listening and seeking to understand.  If listening is present, leaders can also make decisions where people feel like they have been heard.  Even if they disagree with the decision, people need to feel heard and included and often will support or not actively oppose or object to decisions, if they feel like they were heard and the leader is coming from a place of understanding.