When Christi Branscom began her role as Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of General Services, she brought one particular insight with her – how difficult it is for the private sector to do business with government.
That’s not always necessarily a bad thing, she explains; taxpayer dollars should be used with a fair amount of caution and require at least a few hoops to jump through. And though the government may take longer to approve projects, government work can provide stability for private sector companies, especially in precarious times.
Best of all, a cheque from the State of Tennessee won’t bounce.
But when it comes to building relationships, winning competitive rates or simply increasing competitiveness, there’s a balance that needs to be met. And Branscom was only too happy to work toward achieving this balance, drawing on her years of experience doing just that as General Counsel and Chief Administrative Officer of Partners Development, a commercial and residential real estate development firm.
“I joke around and say there’s a pain and suffering tax on everything you do when working with the government because sometimes it can be a challenge,” Branscom says with a laugh. “I know because I’ve been on both sides of the table. But I want to make it easier for both parties to get there.”
As head of five divisions spanning procurement, real estate, document solutions, administration and asset management, efficiencies are something she’s always seeking to create.
It’s a monumental challenge, considering the layers of inherited red tape, processes and procedures. “That’s why I really want to focus on changing some procurement policies and even proposing legislative changes to make it easier for the private sector to work with state government,” Branscom affirms.
“Some of these requirements are important, but I do think there are always opportunities for improvement.”
“Your number one resource is, without a doubt, your people. You just can’t lose sight of that.”
“In Tennessee, we’re already working to improve many governmental processes. For example, the state established a centralized procurement department, creating a single point of contact for all third-party suppliers rather than having each individual department manage its own procurement. In doing so, we’ve also managed to create impressive savings,” she says.
“We have about one hundred people who work in procurement every single day, and they are focused on obtaining the best value on all goods and services we procure on behalf of the state.”
Centralizing procurement allows the State of Tennessee to leverage its great bargaining power. “For example, in FY23 we realized over US$150 million in estimated life-of-contract savings for the State of Tennessee because we centralized procurement. This leads to significant cost savings in taxpayer dollars, year after year,” she says.
The COVID-19 pandemic also presented challenges, requiring a rethink of the way the State of Tennessee occupied its real estate. The state already offered an initiative called Alternative Workplace Solutions (AWS), allowing employees to work remotely. During the pandemic, this AWS option was accelerated.
This, along with the state’s efforts to reduce leases and consolidate space, will allow them to reduce the state’s physical footprint by 2.6 million square feet and save another US$156 million over the next 10 years.
This is accomplished through the State of Tennessee Real Estate Asset Management division in the Department of General Services.
“This division brings all the best real estate experts together,” Branscom explains. “We don’t have them scattered out across departments, handling only one or two leases per year. Instead, this centralization allows for our real estate experts to work together, negotiating the best deals and leading to better real estate outcomes for the state.”
“I am intentional in developing relationships with our contractors like Kline Swinney Association,” Branscom says. “I take the time to meet with them and get to know them. My goal is to develop a relationship based on trust because I know that can reduce a little of the pain and suffering associated with working with the government.”
Of course, it’s not just her supplier relationships that matter. With such a high headcount, Branscom is also very focused on improving employee engagement and retention.
“I have an incredible team of almost 400 people who all believe in what they’re doing,” she says. “Your number one resource is, without a doubt, your people. You just can’t lose sight of that.”
“We have had the opportunity to promote women in each one of our five divisions.”
Each year, the department sends out an employee engagement survey, and when Branscom arrived in 2019, the overall response rate was 72 percent. Last year, the response rate was at a record 87 percent, with 78 percent of employees described as engaged in their work.
Even with these great numbers, she is looking for ways to ensure even more workers are highly engaged in the department. “We want to learn what our staff really need to make their lives easier and their work better,” she says.
Along with pay raises and flexible working arrangements, she is also focused on ensuring her team is presented with opportunities for leadership and growth, with a special interest in investing in women.
“Government operations have been male dominated for years, but since I arrived, we have had the opportunity to promote women in each one of our five divisions,” Branscom explains.
“Our department has been named a Top Workplace for four years in a row based on our employee feedback. We are also the first department in our state to join AWIN [Advancing Women in Nashville]. I want to give our women leaders the opportunity to learn from peers in our community.”
“I want to make sure DGS and its employees are set up for success.”
One particular area Branscom noticed was lacking was the sense of community, especially among new employees. This is something she hopes to fix.
“One of the things I want to do is start a group for employees who have worked at the state five years or less, so they immediately have an opportunity to belong to a group,” she says. “I know if you create a sense of belonging early in someone’s career, then you have greater opportunity for longer-term retention.”
Her efforts and out-of-the-box thinking aren’t going unnoticed. In 2023, the Nashville Business Journal recognized Branscom as a Woman of Influence, awarding her in the Trailblazer category. A lot of that was thanks to her efforts to change the face of government operations.
Thinking ahead, Branscom is keen to ensure the improvements remain.
“I want to ensure there are solid business and people strategies in place that can be followed once I’m gone,” she says. “I want to make sure DGS and its employees are set up for success.”