Federal Real Property:
Improving Data Transparency and Expanding the National Strategy Could Help Address Long-standing Challenges
GAO-16-275: Published: Mar 31, 2016. Publicly Released: Apr 12, 2016.
What GAO Found
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the General Services Administration (GSA), and selected agencies have taken steps to improve the quality of data in the Federal Real Property Profile (FRPP)—the government-wide real property database. Those steps include issuing guidance and implementing various data validation procedures. Starting with fiscal year 2015 data, OMB and GSA are transitioning FRPP from a real property inventory to an analytical tool to guide real property management and to evaluate the performance of the government-wide portfolio. However, GSA has not analyzed agencies' collection or reporting practices or the limitations for using the data. GAO's review of FRPP shows that certain key FRPP data elements, such as utilization status, continue to be inconsistently collected and reported by agencies. An analysis could help OMB and GSA determine the extent to which efforts have improved data quality and identify the next steps. Outlining the limitations of the FRPP data, as suggested by GAO's data reliability standards, could improve transparency for decision-makers on how to properly use the data to, for example, identify underutilized properties for consolidation and colocation.
The five selected agencies GAO reviewed have taken steps to reduce agency-held space and increase utilization in response to government-wide initiatives. In addition, selected agencies have identified lessons learned from these efforts on leveraging statutory authorities and collaborating with stakeholders. For example:
The Department of Veterans Affairs leveraged its enhanced-use leasing authority, allowing VA to partner with a non-profit organization to finance and successfully repair, operate, maintain, and utilize several underutilized buildings to house homeless veterans.
GSA conveyed a historic post office in Portland, Oregon, to a city department; the building was then leased to and repaired by a college, thus avoiding federal holding and repair costs of about $30 million.
Despite successes, the agencies continue to face long-standing challenges with excess and underutilized property and maintenance and repair backlogs due to a complex disposal process, competing stakeholder interests, and limited funding.
In March 2015, OMB issued government-wide guidance—the National Strategy for the Efficient Use of Real Property— providing a foundation to further help agencies strategically manage real property. The National Strategy aligns with many of the desirable characteristics of effective national strategies that GAO has identified, including describing the purpose, defining the problem, and outlining goals and objectives. OMB staff stated that the strategy is a living document that focuses on the most pressing needs. GAO believes the strategy is a major step forward. Moving forward, the strategy could incorporate additional characteristics, such as addressing maintenance and repair backlogs, a long-standing challenge, and addressing the underlying causes of real property challenges. OMB could also better link to agency performance measures to help determine the government-wide progress under the strategy. By incorporating additional characteristics, OMB could use the strategy to promote further improvements in real property management. Also, agency capital planning practices, which vary, are complementary to such government-wide initiatives.
Why GAO Did This Study
The federal government has made progress addressing real property challenges within its owned portfolio, but agencies still face long-standing challenges that existed when GAO first designated real property management as a high-risk area in 2003. GAO was asked to examine the major federal civilian agencies' government-owned real property portfolio, including the progress made in addressing real property challenges. This report addresses (1) the steps taken to improve real property data, (2) the steps selected agencies have taken to address real property management challenges and the lessons learned, and (3) the extent to which the National Strategy and agencies' current capital planning practices address real property challenges. GAO analyzed fiscal year 2014 FRPP data, and government-wide guidance issued by OMB and GSA; visited 11 sites held by five civilian agencies with previously known challenges, 5 agency-identified, and 6 previously visited by GAO; and interviewed officials from these 5 agencies and OMB.
What GAO Recommends
GAO recommends that GSA, with OMB and federal agencies, assess, analyze, and identify any limitations in how agencies collect and report FRPP data and that OMB expand the National Strategy to include key characteristics. GSA partially concurred with GAO's first recommendation, and OMB partially concurred with both recommendations. GAO continues to believe these actions will improve FRPP and the National Strategy in addressing long-standing management challenges.
For more information, contact Dave Wise at (202) 512-2834 or WiseD@gao.gov.
Recommendations for Executive Action
Comments: GSA partially agreed with the recommendation noting that it has limited resources to fully analyze and map the data relative to FRPP data definitions, and that it is the responsibility of individual agencies to ensure reliability of the data and compliance with FRPP definitions. As of October 2016, GSA has taken some action to implement this recommendation. GSA told us it has made progress by conducting an in-depth survey in June 2106 focusing on several data elements including: replacement value, status, owned and otherwise management operating costs, repair needs, utilization, and lease costs. The survey asked agencies questions regarding the processes/resources used to source and compile these data elements from agency IT systems as well as internal agency guidance. GSA received responses from 24 agencies and stated it plans to complete its initial analysis of the survey in the fall of 2016 and indicate limitations of these data elements. GSA plans to conduct a series of working group meetings with agencies to conduct an in depth review of the survey results and to develop a set of recommendations for the Federal Real Property Council. GSA said these recommendations may include, but are not limited to, altering data dictionary definitions, sharing best or common practices for reporting these data elements, and sharing the limitations on the use of these data elements. Based on the working group outcomes and input from the Federal Real Property Council and OMB, GSA plans to produce a white paper on these topics by the latter part of 2017.
Recommendation: To improve the quality and transparency of data entered into FRPP as GSA transitions the database to a platform that would enable greater government-wide use, the Administrator of GSA, in consultation with OMB and federal agencies, should (1) assess the reliability of FRPP data by determining how individual agencies collect and report FRPP data for each FRPP field, including any supplemental guidance used by agencies to comply with government-wide FRPP data definitions as part of the annual certification of FRPP data; (2) analyze the differences in collecting and reporting practices used by these agencies; and (3) identify and make available to FRPP users the limitations of using FRPP data, in the context of how the data are intended to be used in real property decision making and to measure real property performance across agencies and update federal guidance to address limitations, as needed.
Agency Affected: General Services Administration
Comments: When we confirm the actions that OMB has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Recommendation: To enhance the usefulness of the National Strategy for managing federal real property government-wide, the Director of OMB should expand the National Strategy to further address long-standing real property management challenges by: (1) expanding the scope to include maintenance and repair needs; (2) articulating planned actions and identifying alternative approaches, including alternative-funding mechanisms, to address underlying causes of the real property problems; (3) ensuring that performance measures at the agency level inform the overall progress of the National Strategy; and (4) determining the government-wide costs, benefits, and risks by leveraging agencies' long-term capital plans and identifying approaches to optimally manage that risk.
Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget