Federal property managers plagued by new type of data woes

Emily Kopp: Federal property managers plagued by new type of data woes

Data problems continue to haunt the Obama administration’s efforts to tame the government’s property portfolio. But they are not the same problems of yesteryear.

Whereas before, it wasn’t rare to find a rundown building listed in prime condition, now those mistakes are harder to come by. Instead, it’s inconsistencies in agencies’ data that make it hard for the government to consolidate its offices, shed unwanted property and save money on costly leases.

“One of the things we struggle with is, ‘How much juice is the squeeze worth?'” said Keith Cunningham, an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office who focuses on real property management issues. “Getting agencies to change how they count structures, measure utilization, decide how important each structure is — these are things that they’ve done for decades.”

Cunningham offered a case in point during a speech Wednesday to the Federal Leadership in Asset Management Policy Forum at the National Academy of Sciences.

The Interior Department operates the Delta-Mendota Canal in central California. Even though it is 117 miles long, the department considers it just one structure.  But a Federal Aviation Administration radio tower at Dulles International Airport is six structures, according to that agency. The antenna system, different levels of the tower and even the surrounding sidewalk are considered separate pieces of property. This sort of discrepancy can be found across government, Cunningham said.

The Homeland Security Department has tackled data inconsistencies among its 22 components through hard work over a number of years, said Jeffrey Orner, the department’s chief readiness support officer.

“There was no magic,” he said. But it helped that the department’s leadership was intent on achieving a clean financial audit. It could not do that if it didn’t know how many owned and leased properties and vehicles it had. DHS gave his office the resources it needed to go out and count the properties, he said.

Each DHS agency used its own software to manage its properties. Orner said he did not have enough money to replace those IT systems with one that could be used across the agencies. Instead, his office created a data warehouse that skims relevant data from each component. Now he has a central repository for data, even though he does not have a central management system.

But Orner sees problems with the lack of governmentwide standards for such technicalities such as what constitutes usable square feet. That nearly caused a political problem within DHS, he said.  The Coast Guard’s new headquarters on the campus of St. Elizabeths in Washington abides by the department’s definition of usable square feet. Another St. E’s building renovation  that will be used for the DHS leadership adhered to  the General Services Administration’s definition.

“We almost applied two different definitions of usable square feet,” he said. “You can’t do that. People at the Coast Guard thought we were cooking the books to favor the secretary’s office.”

The Obama administration has made data improvement a key pillar of its property management plan, known as Reduce the Footprint.  The General Services Administration has turned the once-static governmentwide property database into a public dashboard that can be used as a management tool. GSA is using the data to pinpoint real estate opportunities, said Alex Kurien, the deputy associate administrator of GSA’s Office of Governmentwide Policy.

“The data should’ve been used 10 years ago, but we’re starting to use it now,” he said. “We are starting to see the value of the data and where we can see opportunities to collocate, consolidate and dispose,” he said.

For example, agencies should be looking at the leases that will be up within the next two or five years, he said. Those may be opportunities for them to consolidate their properties, or even share space with other agencies in the same cities.

“Why would [Agriculture] have five offices in the same city? Why would the State Department have seven offices in the same city?” he asked, adding that he was using those two departments as examples, rather than pointing out something wrong with them. “When Ag and State are right here, why can’t they sit in the same building? We are the same family, right? Why do we have all these occupants in the same city?  We are putting those kinds of forced thoughts into our colleagues. We are collaborating, consulting and having those kinds of discussions.”

GSA is working on a city-by-city analysis of agencies’ portfolios as well, he added.

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