New GAO Report Takes Aim at Federal Property Management

On Wednesday, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a new report on federal real property management that finds major deficiencies in management and decision making related to divesting excess and underutilized property. Here’s a brief summary of the highlights:

The Federal Real Property Council (FRPC) has not followed sound data collection practices in designing and maintaining the Federal Real Property Profile (FRPP) database, raising concern that the database is not a useful tool for describing the nature, use, and extent of excess and underutilized federal real property. For example, FRPC has not ensured that key data elements—including buildings’ utilization, condition, annual operating costs, mission dependency, and value—are defined and reported consistently and accurately. GAO identified inconsistencies and inaccuracies at 23 of the 26 locations visited related to these data elements (see the fig. for an example). As a result, FRPC cannot ensure that FRPP data are sufficiently reliable to support sound management and decision making about excess and underutilized property.

The federal government has undertaken efforts to achieve cost savings associated with better management of excess and underutilized properties. However, some of these efforts have been discontinued and potential savings for others are unclear. For example, in response to requirements set forth in a June 2010 presidential memorandum for agencies to achieve $3 billion in savings by the end of fiscal year 2012, the General Services Administration (GSA) reported approximately $118 million in lease cost savings resulting from four new construction projects. However, GSA has yet to occupy any of these buildings and the agency’s cost savings analysis projected these savings would occur over a 30-year period—far beyond the time frame of the memorandum. The five federal agencies that GAO reviewed have taken some actions to dispose of and better manage excess and underutilized property, including using these properties to meet space needs by consolidating offices and reducing employee work space to use space more efficiently. However, they still face long-standing challenges to managing these properties, including the high cost of property disposal, legal requirements prior to disposal, stakeholder resistance, and remote property locations. A comprehensive, long-term national strategy would support better management of excess and underutilized property by, among other things, defining the scope of the problem; clearly addressing achievement goals; addressing costs, resources, and investments needed; and clearly outlining roles and coordination mechanisms across agencies.

The full report, highlights and more are available from GAO here. And there’s more here from the Washington Post, which notes:

The federal government is the country’s largest holder of real estate, with nearly 400,000 properties that it owns or leases, and President Obama views the properties as presenting opportunities for cutting costs. In 2010, Obama issued a memorandum requiring agencies to achieve $3 billion in real estate savings by the end of fiscal 2012.

GAO researchers found that despite warnings that property information and management were flawed, the government knows very little about the condition and use of properties it owns. The problems also persist despite efforts to create a central database that would facilitate the sale or lease of properties that the government does not need or use.

Real property management—essentially the smart stewardship of government buildings, land and other real property assets—remains an ongoing challenge in the federal government, and Reason Foundation has long advocated smarter government asset management through the development of comprehensive, actively-managed real property inventories.

Last month I had the opportunity to testify before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources on the need for a robust, functional real property inventory at the federal level to lower operations and maintenance costs, identify divestiture opportunities and improve the public stewardship of taxpayer assets. From my testimony:

Managing real property can often be considered a mundane chore in the public sector. Each government agency often has its own monitoring and tracking methods, which are often not compatible or interoperable with other agencies, leading to a lack of standardized reporting methods at agencies and departments. Without the ability to know what government agencies own, it becomes very difficult to manage those assets in the most cost-effective and efficient ways. […]

Unfortunately, when it comes to knowing what it owns, the federal government is lacking. The absence of a robust real property inventory presents a major challenge for right-sizing the federal property portfolio and causes higher than necessary operating costs and maintenance responsibilities.

Read the full testimony here. And in June 2010, Reason Foundation published a report by Anthony Randazzo and John Palatiello outlining the case for a federal real property inventory to serve as a central record of government-owned land and assets and an important component of efficient property management. [A version of this report tailored to state and local governments is available here.]

With the ongoing fiscal challenges at all levels of government, it’s critically important for policymakers to see real property management for what it should be: a central component of smart fiscal management and right-sizing strategies. Tools like real property inventories offer a powerful means by which to lower costs, generate revenue and prioritize the use of taxpayer dollars.