The federal government is involved in nearly every aspect of life in the United States. Through its myriad of agencies, boards, and departments, along with the military, it employs more than 4.3 million people. And a good portion of those positions require office space.
In fact, Dorothy Robyn, former head of the General Services Administration (GSA), has noted that “the federal government owns or leases about 360,000 buildings and 3.3 billion square feet of space — six times more than all the commercial office space in Manhattan. The federal real property inventory includes as well some 485,000 ‘structures’ — everything from national monuments to dams and levees.”
That may appear to be a massive federal footprint for just office space, but even these figures are subject to debate, as the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has major doubts about GSA asset management data. The fact is that the federal government doesn’t know what it owns., alth0ugh this is not particularly shocking, given a number of recent stories about the government’s lack of knowledge of its own operations.
Not only does the GSA not know what property it owns, it has faulty records regarding the property it does know about. The GAO report includes pictures of buildings the GSA records show as being in “excellent condition.”
I’ll go out on a limb and say that a building with a collapsed roof or radiological contamination is by no means in “excellent condition”; it is more likely closer to “not fit for human habitation.”
The same GAO report notes that the federal government holds a large amount of underutilized property, and has similarly poor records of how the property it manages is being used. A GAO spot check revealed that a building listed as underutilized was fully occupied. In its limited sample, the GAO also found a building listed as unoccupied but in use.
To add insult to injury, the GSA is not only managing assets poorly, it has been racked by scandal over lavish spending in recent years.
So we have an unaccountable agency with a property portfolio so massive it cannot even track its own assets, and with properties chronically underutilized — all while constituents remain in the dark on how their money is being spent. What is the solution?
First and foremost is the obvious point: the federal real estate footprint should be the absolute minimum necessary to suit its needs. Selling off federal assets and terminating underutilized leases simply makes sense. Not only does it lower the number of buildings that need to be overseen, but property is returned to private use where taxes are paid and value is created for the community. Moreover, priority should be placed on selling off assets in cities and regions where property values are high. As an example, the government, lists more than 1,300 properties as excess in the state of California at this time.
Robyn, the former GSA administrator, also recommends bringing flexibility to the federal property management. For example, the arcane regulations that discourage the federal government from engaging in public-private partnerships for federal buildings should be scrapped. Similarly, laws that ban the government from engaging in leases that include an option to purchase at the end of the lease term should be scrapped.
Such rules make the acquisition of property unnecessarily expensive in the long term, costing taxpayer dollars over time. Along these same lines, Davis-Bacon rules that purposely inflate compensation for construction workers — to minimize competition with union employees — make government buildings unnecessarily expensive. Reforms to these laws would help lower the costs of maintaining workspace for the bureaucracy and the resulting spending of taxpayer dollars.
Moreover, laws such as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, which mandates that surplus property be offered for use as homeless shelters, should be repealed. Such laws make disposal of federal property an unnecessarily long and circuitous process.
Whether people in Washington, D.C., want to recognize it or not, the federal government simply owns too much “stuff” for its own good. It cannot track all of the assets it owns, let alone maintain them. The government’s own property managers, with a bureaucracy in the thousands, fail to handle the burden of years of asset accumulation. In an era where tax dollars are increasingly scarce, there is every reason to shrink the federal footprint, and with it the cost of maintaining hundreds of thousands of buildings.