GSA gets a refreshed set of recommendations for dealing with real property

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently reiterated a list of recommendations to the General Services Agency (GSA) on managing federal real property.

The General Services Administration (GSA) deals with many governmentwide concerns, including real estate and office space. For more than 20 years, auditors at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have considered federal real property management a high-risk issue. GAO recently reiterated a list of recommendations for the GSA on real estate. For more, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked with GAO’s director of physical infrastructure issues, Heather Krause.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin The General Services Administration deals with many government-wide concerns including real estate and office space. For more than 20 years, though, auditors at the Government Accountability Office have considered federal Real Property Management a high-risk issue.  GAO recently reiterated a list of recommendations for the GSA about real estate. We get more now from the GAO is director of physical infrastructure issues. Heather Kraus. Heather, good to have you back.

Heather Krause Thank you, Tom.

Tom Temin And this is a restatement of some longstanding things, some of them going back to 2003, and so forth. Any new recommendations for let’s start there for GSA on managing real estate and property?

Heather Krause We have 27 outstanding recommendations to the GSA right now. And what this recent work did was highlight the five that are priority recommendations. And so among the ones, so you know, they actually closed two of our priority recommendations last year, and we had added (an) additional one this year. That recommendation is focused on looking at the deferred maintenance backlog and GSAs plans to address deferred maintenance backlog. You know, there’s about a $3.1 billion deferred maintenance and repair backlog in fiscal year 2022. And so, we found that GSA did not communicate in its budget documents the amount of funding or timeframes that it would take to address that backlog. And so they did take some steps to address, you know, and provide some information and their 2025 budget justification, (but) we’re still looking for some additional information on those funding amounts and timeframes. And that kind of information is really important to inform decisionmakers about how funding levels could affect GSA’s backlog and really help them evaluate the proposal GSA has to address that backlog.

Tom Temin And that backlog applies to federally-owned properties.

Heather Krause Correct. And I should add too…actually, I think I maybe misspoke. I think the other recommendation — that one was around a little bit longer — but the more recent one was on space utilization data. I guess, just to speak to that. I mean, again, across the board, these five recommendations are really to address, Tom, as you said, up front, where we have seen a real high-risk area for the federal government, which is addressing that federal management federal property portfolio. And so another recommendation we made here was to look at plans to share information on space utilization data. And so what we found, and what we’re looking for is — they’ve taken some steps to share broadleaf information on how agencies can collect or look at methods for identifying space utilization. And they’ve done some things to share that information, but really looking for them to continue to have a documented plan to ensure those efforts are publicized, including to those that do not use GSA space, or portfolio planning services. And so kind of making all agencies aware of the cost and benefits of the various methods and technologies for collecting space utilization data. That kind of information, again, would really help agencies identify cost effective methods for collecting that information, and really informing the kind of decisions on potential changes to their real estate footprints.

Tom Temin Right. But they need the cooperation of agencies though, don’t they? The occupants who are having trouble figuring out who’s going to be in the office, who is not. And what percentage of the time?

Heather Krause Yeah, I think what a lot of these recommendations do is improve that kind of data that’s needed to help agencies make those types of decisions. Again, coming back to that space utilization, how can agencies — so, like, GSA is looking to really work with agencies to figure out: what are tools and ways that they can better understand utilization so they can assess what are we using? What might be opportunities to dispose of property that’s unneeded.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Heather Kraus, Director of Physical infrastructure Issues at the GAO. And that idea of disposal of property. That’s something they talk about for decades at a time. And there are commissions and looks at properties. And sometimes after all of that, they find a garage somewhere they can tear down or sell. There’s a more fundamental issue, though, isn’t there?

Heather Krause Yeah, this disposing of unneeded property has been a long-standing challenge. Sort of managing the property and addressing issues of disposing unneeded property has been a long-standing issue. Another recommendation that we made to help address that was trying to get — again, as you point out, Tom, that there is federal agencies that are also involved in in making these decisions, but looking for GSA to develop a process to collect and share lessons learned from what they had was, which was a temporary approach for reducing the federal government’s real property inventory. So there was a law back in 2016 that set up a process for them to select and prepare unneeded federal properties for sale. The first couple rounds of process did face some setbacks and challenges in carrying it out. So what we’ve recommended, to improve that last round of the process as well as looking ahead, is having a mechanism or a process to share those lessons learned, leverage those stakeholders that were involved — their knowledge and addressing potential challenges with disposing of real property. That kind of sharing of information, I think will provide stakeholders, including the Congress, with insights on how, you know, the federal government might better dispose of its Israel property.

Tom Temin And of course, GSA leases, probably way more space than the government owns for occupancy by agencies. And did you find are there open recommendations on the leasing side of things? Besides the occupancy information?

Heather Krause We don’t have a leasing recommendation when it comes to something that’s priority. But I think, you know, we’re often looking at ways — again, I think key areas is improving that data to help, GSA and agencies make decisions on federal property. Another way that we found in our work to improve that was around the accuracy, completeness and usefulness of some of the street address information that you find in it’s public database. So you know, when we looked at that issue, again, lack of reliable data on federal assets is really one of the main reasons is federal property management’s on our high-risk list. And GSA has a publicly available database, you know, of their buildings, structures and lands. The public can take a look at that for any number of reasons, including finding property that they may be interested in leasing or purchasing from the federal government with a space that the government no longer needs. But when we looked at that there were numerous issues with the database which can reduce that kind of benefit that we’re looking for, from sharing that kind of information. So we made a recommendation, again, to improve that data. And GSA is collaborating with OMB on looking to provide guidance to agencies to help them improve the quality of the data, set up data quality programs. And what we’re looking for is them to follow through and working closely with OMB and federal property officials to complete those inter to other efforts to improve the data. Because that kind of reliable data will really increase its usefulness to the public, and really support that disposition of unneeded property.

Tom Temin And the street addresses. How is it? Do you suppose they don’t have accurate data on street addresses? I just looked it up. And they show the White House at 1601 Pennsylvania Avenue. Just kidding. But it seems like that would be kind of fundamental.

Heather Krause Some of it has to do with kind of formatting and incomplete information. And so, I think some of this is looking to ensure that there’s complete, accurate, you know, formatted information in those data databases to make it more reliable.

Tom Temin And in the 20 years, you’ve been developing these recommendations, and some of them get carried over from, you know, biannual report and so on. There have been a lot of building services administrators, commissioners, and a lot of administrators. Do you get the sense that GSA says, ‘Yeah, we agree, we got to get to this.’ Or what’s the response been?

Heather Krause The GSA has been very responsive to our recommendations. We have a way to measure progress of agencies. So we look back over recommendations made four years ago. And in the most recent report, we found that they had actually implemented 100% of the recommendations that we made four years ago. We have found it similarly in the recent years, they’ve had over 80%, or up to 100% in recent years, as well, of recommendations are implemented. So they are very responsive. I think it’s important to draw attention to the recommendations that we do in this particular report to ensure that we continue to make those types of improvements as we tackle this longstanding challenge of managing federal real property.

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