Efforts to offload unused property from the federal books got a boost last month when a team of developers working with the Four Seasons hotel chain submitted the winning $19.5 million bid to purchase the massive Georgetown West Heating Plant from the government.
The Art Deco brick behemoth, near the swanky Georgetown waterfront in Northwest Washington, D.C., had long been a poster child for the difficulties the federal government faces in disposing of excess properties. Despite being mostly vacant for the past decade, the building stood there continuing to rack up $3.5 million in annual upkeep.
The process of disposing of properties that have outlasted their usefulness to the government continues to vex agencies.
But the majority of agency savings resulted not from property disposal but from more small-bore improvements, such as space-management and sustainability initiatives. Of the $3.5 billion agencies reported in real-property savings at the end of 2012, just $984 million came from actually disposing of some of the 14,000 excess properties the government owns.
As part of the special report, Rise of the Money People, Federal News Radio examines why the government has struggled with real-property management and the reform efforts on the table that could help make a difference.
High-quality data lacking
The government owns some 889,000 buildings and structures, according to fiscal 2010 data — the last year for which complete information is available.
More than 15 percent (or 14,000) of those buildings is considered excess, costing the government $190 million each year to operate and maintain, according to administration estimates. Another 71,000 properties are deemed underused, such as half-empty office buildings or warehouses.
The government’s inventory of excess buildings and structures spans everything from everyday office buildings in Washington, D.C., and historic log cabins in the Pacific Northwest to manmade caves and even islands.
High-quality data is key to effective financial management. But when it comes to real-property data — such as knowing the location, condition and occupancy rates for buildings owned by the government — it’s hard to come by.
Ostensibly, the Federal Real Property Profile aims to collect and manage just this type of information. But federal auditors say the inventory is plagued by incorrect and incomplete data.
In a report issued last year, the Government Accountability Office found rat-infested buildings and properties with radiological contamination were being listed by some agencies as in excellent condition and some vacant office buildings were described as being fully occupied.
“We have a ways to go in improving the quality of that data,” Dorothy Robyn, commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Public Buildings Service told Federal News Radio.
The FRPP, which was created nearly a decade ago during the George W. Bush administration, was designed as a first step toward becoming more systematic about collecting real-property data, she said.
But the effectiveness of the profile is hampered by the fact that, as it currently exists, it’s not a “living system,” but a one-time annual snapshot of real-estate holdings.
“There’s not a damn thing you can do …”
“If you don’t know what you own, then how possibly can you manage it efficiently?” asked Leonard Gilroy, director of government reform at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian-leaning think tank.
“But, it’s still not what I would call — and I think what most observers would call — a robust inventory.”
Gilroy said the scope and function of the property profile should be expanded to be more of a real-time database of federal assets, as opposed to a simple spreadsheet. It should also be outfitted with geographic information system (GIS) capabilities, he said — the same technology that powers Google Maps.
In many ways, though, GSA’s hands are tied when it comes to improving the current process. GSA-owned properties only account for about 10 percent of the government’s total real-estate footprint.
And while the agency is tasked with maintaining the property profile, it can’t really compel other agencies to provide better or more complete data, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said.
“You are a peer agency,” she told Robyn at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in February. “There’s not a damn thing you can do when you go to the Department of Energy and say, ‘We want your things.’ You just can’t get it. You can’t do it [to] the Department of Agriculture. They’re 10 times bigger than you are.”
GSA seeks ‘painful but necessary’ BRAC process
The lack of a centralized authority has stymied efforts to improve the disposal process, experts said.
“You’re looking at an organizational chart [with] lines going in different directions, which is not conducive to having any kind of accountable process,” Gilroy said. “You don’t have, necessarily, the organizational and sort of structural set-up to have someone to basically crack the whip, and that’s really what’s needed.”
The administration has hung its hopes on a property-disposal effort modeled on that used to shutter military bases, known as BRAC. And GSA is strongly on board with such a proposal.
“We need a civilian BRAC,” Robyn said.
Robyn has seen up close how effective the BRAC process can be. Before joining GSA in September 2012, Robyn served as the Defense Department’s installations chief and oversaw the last few years of the latest round of military base closures there.
The process is often “painful but necessary,” she said.
In 2011, the Obama administration introduced the Civilian Property Realignment Act (CPRA), which called for setting up an independent panel tasked with identifying excess federal properties and making recommendations on closures. Congress would then be required to vote, in an all-or-nothing manner, on the panel’s recommendations.
The White House’s initial proposal, however, got stuck in the partisan gridlock that gripped Congress that year.
That doesn’t mean Congress hasn’t continued to act on its own, though. Last term, the House approved two bills aimed at reforming real-property management. One of them, introduced by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), would streamline the existing disposal process, setting up a five-year pilot program under which GSA would conduct expedited sales of 15 of the government’s highest value properties.
The Senate has taken more tentative steps. Last year, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved a bill, introduced by Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), to speed the sale of excess properties. But it never saw a vote in the full chamber.
Senate aides told Federal News Radio Carper intends to re-introduce the measure some time this term.
GSA takes lead on open, collaborative work spaces
In the absence of sweeping legislative changes, GSA is stuck with the current, mostly piecemeal process.
“We can do one-off disposals,” Robyn said. “But it’s remarkably difficult for an agency to close down a particular building.”
GSA is also finding other ways to make a dent in federal real-property costs, taking the lead in consolidating work spaces and implementing other innovative space-management techniques.
“The single most powerful thing that my organization is doing now is trying to move our customer agencies to collaborative, open work space — much like what the private sector is embracing — which allows them to meet their needs with less space,” Robyn said at the oversight hearing in February.
Robyn told Federal News Radio she’s a convert to the idea.
“I parachuted into GSA six months [ago] and had a very steep learning curve. And it was helped by the fact that I don’t have an office,” she said. “I have a permanent work station. I’m four feet from my deputy and eight feet from my chief of staff. And being able to overhear them and listen in on conversations, it just really promotes the flow of information.”