Ernst tells top ‘naughty list’ agencies to use or sell underutilized office space

Federal employees have been returning to the office more regularly in recent months, and agencies are in the process of offloading office space they no longer need.

But the top Republican on the Senate Small Business & Entrepreneurship Committee says agencies still aren’t making effective use of their office space.

“If we’re not going to use it, let’s lose it,” Committee Ranking Member Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said in a press conference Tuesday, unveiling a “naughty list” of federal agencies with the lowest occupancy rates.

“While it’s not the Night Before Christmas quite yet, there’s not a creature stirring – not even a mouse – in the halls across this city,” Ernst said.

Data from the Government Accountability Office shows the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Small Business Administration both had a 7% average utilization rate in early 2023 — the lowest rate of all other major agencies.

HUD and SBA officials told GAO their headquarters buildings were undergoing renovation during the data collection period, contributing to a decrease in attendance.

The GAO data shared by Ernst’s office provides a more granular,  agency-by-agency look at federal office space utilization. The watchdog, in a preliminary report issued this summer, used aggregated metrics to cluster agencies by their average utilization rate.

GAO, in a report this summer, found all 24 of the agency headquarters offices it reviewed had excess space, including 17 that had an average building capacity of just 25%.

“If we’re not going to fill up — we’re not going to go actually work within these agencies — then maybe we need to get rid of this space, because it does cost a lot to rent these buildings in Washington, D.C or own them. So if we’re not going to bring workers back, folks, let’s get rid of this,” Ernst said.

The GAO data shows the estimated three-month average space utilization statistics for the 24 Chief Financial Officer Act agencies for a sample period that includes one-week periods in January, February, and March 2023.

Ernst told Federal News Network that she’ll continue to push federal agencies “to deck the halls with federal workers or sell off unused office space.”

The data comes with a couple of caveats. GAO’s data snapshot, in many cases, doesn’t reflect a governmentwide push for the federal workforce to return to the office more often.

Many federal employees have been heading back to the office more regularly this fall, or are preparing to work in-person more in early 2024, after the Office of Management and Budget directed agencies to increase “meaningful” in-office work.

SBA, however, directed employees to return to the office sooner than most other federal agencies.

It directed employees represented by the American Federation of Government Employees to return to the office for at least two days per two-week pay period, starting in September 2022.

Meanwhile, bringing more federal employees back to the office won’t solve the government’s office space problems.

GAO also notes that utilization rates aren’t an exact metric for tracking how many federal employees are working in the office.

The watchdog defines utilization as a “ratio of a building’s capacity and the extent to which an agency uses that capacity.”

GAO states that utilization rate differs from employee attendance, because a building’s capacity is based on the size of the building — not the number of people assigned to work there.

“All assigned staff could go to a building, and it could still be underutilized if the building has more space than it needs,” GAO wrote

GAO said attendance statistics represent the average daily attendance for the sample period, but that data varied for individual days.

According to GAO, the Office of Personnel Management has indicated information about the relative concentration of federal personnel in any given building may raise security risks for federal personnel.

In recognition of those security concerns, the Defense Department gave GAO data on attendance at the Mark Center in Alexandria, Virginia – not the Pentagon. GAO identifies the Mark Center as DoD’s administrative headquarters.

OPM told GAO that additional non-agency staff occupies its headquarters building, and its numbers include those workspaces and attendance.

The federal government’s landlord, the General Services Administration, recently told lawmakers about efforts to expedite the sale and disposal of excess federal office space.

GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan told the House Oversight and Accountability Committee last month that her agency is  “laser-focused on right-sizing the federal footprint.”

With agencies — including GSA — embracing the benefits of a long-term hybrid and remote workforce, Carnahan said her agency sees an opportunity to reduce the government’s real-estate footprint by up to 30% in the coming years.

Shrinking the federal office space portfolio to that degree, she added, would save the federal government about $60 billion over a decade.

“Right now, agencies across the government are rethinking how much space they actually need. And while GSA doesn’t make space decisions for agencies, we do work closely with them to leverage our team’s expertise to help agencies plan and whenever possible to downsize,” Carnahan told the committee.

GSA is already stepping up efforts to get rid of federal buildings and properties that agencies no longer need. Last month, it announced it’s putting 23 additional federal properties through its disposition process.

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