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.

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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

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: In 2016, GAO reported that the Office of Management and Budget, General Services Administration (GSA), and selected agencies had taken steps to improve the quality of data in the government wide real property database, known as the Federal Real Property Profile (FRPP). However, GSA had not analyzed agencies' collection or reporting practices or the limitations for using the data. GAO's review of FRPP showed that certain key FRPP data elements, such as utilization status, continue to be inconsistently collected and reported by agencies. GAO found that the usefulness of FRPP data was limited due to the inconsistencies in data collection and reporting across federal agencies, and the lack of transparency about data limitations. Further analysis could help OMB and GSA determine the extent to which efforts have improved data quality and identify the next steps. Therefore, GAO recommended that GSA (1) assess the reliability of FRPP data by determining how individual agencies collect and report FRPP data, (2) analyze the differences in collecting and reporting practices used by these agencies, and (3) identify the limitations of the data in terms of how the data are intended to be used in real property decision making. In 2018, GAO confirmed that GSA took a range of actions in 2016 and 2017 to address this recommendation. First, GSA conducted a government wide survey to assess how agencies report key data elements including repair needs, replacement value, and operations and maintenance costs. GSA's analysis showed inconsistency among the agencies' interpretation and application of the definitions. As a primary limitation, GSA found that the identified inconsistency was significant and did not support accurate government-wide assessments of repair needs, facility condition, and maintenance needs among the agencies. To correct the inconsistency and improve transparency, also in December 2016, GSA issued standard definitions agencies were to use in reporting these data, with related guidance. Second, to better ensure that agencies are improving their data over time, GSA established an "Agency-Level Federal Real Property Profile Data Quality Improvement Program," which is intended to provide recommendations and guidance for agencies to use to evaluate the quality of their FRPP data on an annual basis. Overall, these GSA's actions should improve FRPP data reliability and transparency, as well as agencies' ability to use them for real-property decision making on matters such as property disposal and colocation.

    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

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: As of February 2018, OMB had not expanded the national strategy to address other long-standing real property management challenges. GAO will reach out to OMB to determine the status of any implementation efforts.

    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

 

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