Better federal building upkeep, right-sizing office space key to governmentwide savings, GAO says

The Government Accountability Office is telling Congress that agencies could save millions of dollars, by making better use of federal buildings.

The federal government, in the hybrid work era, faces a unique opportunity to get rid of office space they don’t need and invest more in the buildings they keep.

The Government Accountability Office is telling Congress that agencies could save millions of dollars, by making better use of federal buildings.

GAO, in its latest report on overlapping and duplicative federal programs, states agencies could save about $100 million, if they used predictive models to make smarter decisions about deferred maintenance and repairs.

The watchdog office says the government could save even more, by setting federal building utilization benchmarks and addressing underutilized office space.

Comptroller General Gene Dodaro told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that predictive analytics would help agencies address a growing maintenance backlog.

Comptroller General Gene Dodaro told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that predictive analytics would help agencies address a growing maintenance backlog.

“None of them were fully utilizing predictive modeling to say, ‘OK, if I make an investment here, I can save this amount of money. When’s the best time to make that investment?’” Dodaro told the subcommittee on emerging threats and spending oversight.

GAO found deferred maintenance and repairs grew from about $26 billion to nearly $49 billion between fiscal 2017 and 2022 for the federal government’s landlord, the General Services Administration, and the departments of Interior, Energy and Health and Human Services.

The watchdog agency expects HHS, Interior and Energy would be able to save $100 million by using these predictive analytics.

GSA said its potential savings would depend on the funding it gets to start these projects — but GAO estimates the agency could reduce its backlog by at least 0.5%.

Dodaro said agencies should also do more to address underused federal building space, “in light of the new working arrangements that agencies are forging and working their way through.”

The federal government owns over 460 million square feet of office space, which costs billions of dollars annually to operate and maintain. Federal real property management has been on GAO’s High-Risk List since 2003.

GAO recommends the Office of Management and Budget, which chairs the Federal Real Property Council, should set new federal building utilization metrics that reflect a greater level of telework across the federal workforce.

“As the country emerges from the pandemic and agencies continue to offer telework as an option, the federal government has a unique opportunity to reconsider how much and what type of office space it needs,” the report states.

OMB agreed with GAO’s recommendation. It told the watchdog office in March 2024 that it created a working group to start developing those benchmarks.

GAO said setting new benchmarks would push agencies to reduce the amount of office space they occupy. It estimates agencies would save at least 1% of costs from reducing leased space, and could result in $10 million of savings over five years.

Dodaro told lawmakers “there’s not that actually that many barriers” for agencies to start right-sizing their real estate footprints.

“Right now, the agencies are all doing it differently. Most of the utilization rates apply to headquarters buildings in Washington, not the buildings throughout the country and all the different assets. And you need different rates for like laboratories, versus other kinds of facilities, so it’s not an easy job. But somebody needs to take leadership,” he said.

GAO found last summer that all agency headquarters buildings in the Washington, D.C. area had excess space, including 17 that had an average building utilization of just 25%.

The Public Buildings Reform Board, in a more recent report, found the federal headquarters buildings operated at 12% of their estimated capacity, on average, between January and September 2023.

GAO looking at telework’s impact on federal workforce

Dodaro said GAO is also looking at what impact, if any, a greater use of telework has had on customer service, recruitment and retention and mission delivery across the federal government.

“The focus Congress ought to put on this, in my opinion, is on outcomes,” Dodaro said. “Are we getting the right outcomes that we want to achieve, and not try to micromanage how that happens? But if you don’t get the right outcomes, you need to hold the agencies accountable,” he said.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told the watchdog he’s “concerned about the ability to maintain a strong and effective workforce at the federal government level, given the telework policies that we have.”

Romney and Sen. Joe Manchin recently introduced the Back to Work Act, which would require federal employees to spend 60% of their work hours in the office. The Biden administration is currently calling on agencies to bring their employees into the office at least 50% of the time.

Romney said he’s leading the bill, in response to reported customer service constituents face when interacting with federal agencies still on a hybrid work schedule.

“Had the response time been the same as before COVID, fine. But in fact, the lines are longer. People are having a harder time getting in touch with the government,” Romney said.

GAO, a legislative branch agency, codified workplace flexibilities last year that allow its employees to telework up to four days a week.

“[If] we get the right outcomes, you can have workplace flexibilities. But if we don’t get the right outcomes, we’re not going to do it. Fortunately for us, we study it and evaluate it, and our outcomes are really good. And it doesn’t matter where people are,” Dodaro said about managing GAO employees.

The Partnership for Public Services this week named GAO the top midsized agency in its Best Places to Work rankings, for the fourth year in a row.

“People aren’t smarter just because they’re sitting in a government building,” Dodaro said.  “It may be that it’s telework, or it may be they don’t have the right people in the first place — they haven’t trained them properly to answer the calls they have, they’re not holding them accountable,” Dodaro said.

Meanwhile, Dodaro said telework and workplace flexibility are key incentives to attract in-demand tech experts to government jobs.

“Right now, the struggle to get AI people — the government can’t pay the same salaries, but you can give some workplace flexibility. You can get some high-tech talent. And we’ve been able to do that at GAO — scientists, computer security people — by giving them some workplace flexibilities they can’t get anywhere else. You wouldn’t have that caliber of talent in government in case you did that.”

A White House-led, interagency AI and Tech Talent Task Force, in a report last month, said agencies have hired over 150 AI experts, and are on track to bring on at least 500 new hires before the end of fiscal 2025.

However, Dodaro said agencies are going to have difficulty making those AI hires — although their expertise is needed to get the federal government up to speed with these emerging tech tools.

“Some of the data in the government is not good at all. It’s not complete, it’s not accurate, it’s not reliable. And if it’s used for AI applications, all you’re going to get is bad outcomes faster. So the limitation of the government, because of the lack of reliable data, is enormous and should not be underestimated.”

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