A big uptick in federal agencies’ deferred facility maintenance backlogs

The bills for facility maintenance that federal agencies have decided to put off until future years are ballooning. The Government Accountability Office looked at four big agencies: GSA, HHS, Interior and Energy. GAO found the collective size of their deferred maintenance backlogs grew 80% over just the past five years – and agencies have not done a great job of explaining the reasons to Congress. David Marroni is an acting director for physical infrastructure issues at GAO. He talked about the problems with Federal News Network’s Deputy Editor Jared Serbu on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin. 

Interview Transcripts: 

Jared Serbu Okay, David. And I think I think the most obvious place to start is from what goes been able to determine what are some of the reasons behind these huge, huge increases in deferred maintenance expenses or estimates, I guess we should say.   

David Marroni Right. So there’s a number of reasons. Funding constraints as one agencies would, they don’t have enough funds to do while the repair and maintenance needs defer those repairs. So that’s one of the reasons for the increase. Also, as I think anyone knows who’s done a renovation in the past couple of years. Material and labor costs have increased substantially due to inflation, and that affects the deferred maintenance backlog to its terms, the size of that estimate. And then a third reason is simply that the vast size of these federal building and structure holdings, this is a large and aging portfolio. The average age is about 50 years of many of these buildings at this point. And older buildings just cost more to maintain and repair. They deteriorate more. And so that also contributes to the increase.   

Jared Serbu Yeah. And it seems like it’s really government wide. I know you really only looked at detail at four large agencies, but you also found, I think, a 58% increase government wide in these in these deferred maintenance expenses. It sounds like what you’re saying is there’s no like singular policy across the government that caused this. It’s a lot of economic factors and a lot of other things.   

David Marroni Yeah, that’s a fair take. It’s economic factors and then it’s just progressively increase in these maintenance backlogs over time for civilian agencies. This was focused on civilians, right?   

Jared Serbu How reliable can we say these estimates probably are? Because it seems like by definition this is work that wasn’t done. So I’m going to guess in a lot of cases, agencies really never went out to bid to get reliable cost estimates on what the work would have taken. So again, how reliable are these estimates?   

David Marroni So they’re reliable enough for accounting purposes, but that does not mean that when you actually conducted this project, it would be this exact number. So I think that the number we’re talking here about $80 billion of a deferred made up backlog. That’s a good estimate of where things stand. It may be higher what you got into the actual projects themselves, but this is reliable enough for accounting purposes.   

Jared Serbu And I want to dig into one of your other major findings was, which is that in their budget materials and other communications that Congress agencies need to be communicating more information about this deferred maintenance. What are they not telling Congress that they should be telling Congress?   

David Marroni So a couple of things. First, they are including information on what’s the you know, at a big level, what’s our deferred maintenance backlog, which is good, but they haven’t been explaining the reason for major changes from one year to the next, which is important context for Congress to understand. They also have not been including information on what is included in these numbers and what is it. So, for instance, in some cases you may have a building that isn’t the deferred means backlog, but you’re planning to get rid of it the next year. And so it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to invest in those repairs. But in the information being communicated to Congress, agencies aren’t being clear about what exactly is in that bucket or not. And then lastly, the agencies are not communicating what portion of the deferred means backlog is mission critical, Like what are the most important pieces of this backlog versus some things that might be less urgent? So those bits of information are important for Congress with this making funding decisions to really understand the full context of what these numbers be.   

Jared Serbu Right. And the consequences of those deferrals, I guess, would be one of the most important things you’d want to know, because there’s a big difference between a deferral that, you know, would prevent the failure of a building versus something that you can reasonably put off for a few years with no real consequences to Agencies have that kind of information that they could be sending to Congress.   

David Marroni Oh, they do. The agencies actually internally have a fairly good at least the agency’s looked at a fairly good process for prioritizing projects, understanding where they deferred maintenance, urgent, urgent needs are. So we’re simply saying, well, you should communicate that more wholly to Congress so they can understand as they’re making funding decisions.   

Jared Serbu And considering how long federal budget cycles normally take. I’m imagining that that sort of added information is probably not going to start showing up for a few years. Is that a fair expectation?   

David Marroni I think that’s a fair expectation. Obviously, we’re in the midst of the next budget cycle right now. So the agencies all accepted our recommendations, all agree with our recommendations. DoE said they were going to take a look. So hopefully by say FY26, we’ll start to see this information in the budget submissions.   

Jared Serbu There was a little bit of discussion in the report on using models. Can you go into that a little bit how our agency’s doing that? And does it seem to be effective?   

David Marroni Yes. So of the four agency we looked at, which were Department of Energy, Department of the Interior, Health and Human Services at GSA, only one had a fulsome model, GSA, which they use. And it’s an important tool. It allows them to say, okay, we have a number of deferred maintenance projects. Let’s use the model to find out what the best return of our investment would be. We have a limited number of funds. How can we get the most for our money using this model? The other agencies, two of them, had some modeling capability, but not a fulsome capability like GSA did. And the Department of the Interior didn’t use a model for this purpose. So we actually recommended that all three of those agencies take a look see the cost benefits of adopting this type of modeling, because we think it is a potential way to get some cost savings. Maximize the use of your resources to get these backlogs down. It’s just an important issue, both for mission reasons and for financial reasons. Right. If these structures aren’t holding up over time, it could affect their ability to do what the agencies need them to do. But in obviously for the fall government overall, these are large potential financial costs that are coming due. So important to get our arms around this now.  

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