Regional Administrator and Senior Advisor for Technology, the General Services Administration (GSA)
BA in philosophy and history, Boston College
Andrew McMahon, Harris Public Policy MPP’09, is the Regional Administrator and Senior Advisor for Technology for the General Services Administration (GSA), a role that includes the management of 850 employees and 36 million square feet of GSA real estate. The GSA is an independent agency of the United States government that helps manage and support the functioning of federal agencies, including supplying products for government offices, providing transportation and office space to federal employees, and developing cost-minimizing policies. The GSA has dominion over 400 million square feet of real estate and the government purchases one out of nine items through the GSA.
In McMahon’s role, he is an advisor to the Obama Administration and its government agencies on all things technology and the purchasing of it. He helps mediate the precarious balance between too little and too much government policy intervention into emerging technologies. He is also a “bureaucracy ninja” who must understand the inner workings of the GSA and its partner agencies in order to be successful and make an impact, while also ensuring that the programs developed are successful and funded.
Though not always simple, McMahon’s role is critically important. “For six years, I've worked to change how the federal government invests in people, technology, and processes so that it can better serve the public and businesses,” he says.
He does this work because he believes in it. McMahon’s philosophy is that the federal government has an important role in supporting emerging technologies, but is careful about over regulation and its effects on innovation and progress.
He explains, “If we let the market run with areas like autonomous vehicles, drones, and artificial intelligence, there will be real human consequences. However, I also believe there are unintended consequences to policy as well that have to be carefully considered. So, the role of governmental policy is to figure out where intervention is appropriate. The American economy has been successful, largely, because it’s been able to reinvent itself through innovation, so it’s important to be incredibly sensitive about regulations.”
Though McMahon is reflective on the potential pitfalls to intervention, he strongly believes that federal public policy can be “transformative when tackling the hard, messy problems that the markets cannot or will not tackle.” In the case of healthcare for the poor and elderly who may not be able to pay, McMahon believes that the federal government has a responsibility to care for those people through Medicare and Medicaid. This is not a responsibility that the private markets are necessarily moved by and therefore, they should not and will not be the solution driver, according to McMahon.
“Federal policy looks at the big collective problems,” says McMahon. “It answers the hard questions like, how do you satisfy a majority of the population with a solution knowing that you are probably going to miss on the outer edges of the bell curve?
He continues, “Additionally, there is no market driver, bottom line, stock price, or gross margin by which you can measure success. It’s very difficult in government policy to know what the return on investment is in the end. So, for me, public policy is trying to apply solutions to the really hard problems that the market won’t take on, partially because of the inability to understand the ROI or the politically charged nature of those problems.”
McMahon finds his work deeply interesting and engaging, but definitely sees areas where bold policy experts, particular those developed at the Harris School, can and should try to make a difference in how the federal government operates. He says, “If I were to pick two things that we absolutely have to solve for and have politicians focus on, they are education and healthcare. These are long-term investments that if you solve for them, we will have greater economic stability and opportunity that would be massively beneficial to countless people. If you can close the educational achievement gap, you are talking about the economic growth that people were really looking for in this past election. I’d love to see fellow Harris graduates help solve for these critical problems.”
McMahon is enthusiastic about prospective students who are contemplating enrolling in the MPP program at the University of Chicago Harris School. His message to them is threefold: 1) you will learn how to work hard and gain a confidence in your skills and abilities that will serve you throughout your career; 2) you will be in-demand due to Harris’ reputation as a practical, quantitative, and economics-invested program that particularly speaks to government’s preferences for a “harder skillset;” and 3) you will have access to an extensive alumni network.
“I’ve encountered quite a few Harris alums throughout my career. Actually, my former boss at GSA is an alum,” he says. “When you meet other people who went to Harris, you share an intense and enriching experience that matters. That is a practical thing that never hurts. Importantly, you will be completely comfortable with data and difficult problems. I mean, I took Professor and Nobel Laureate Gary Becker’s human capital theory class and that felt impossible. If I can handle that, I can handle anything. Harris has given me so much confidence.”