VA Real Property:

Clear Procedures and Improved Data Collection Could Facilitate Property Disposals

GAO-19-148: Published: Jan 9, 2019. Publicly Released: Jan 9, 2019.

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vonaha@gao.gov

 

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The Department of Veterans Affairs spent about $4 million last year to maintain hundreds of empty buildings. Federal management of real property (including VA's) has been on our High Risk List since 2003.

We found VA has taken steps to improve how it gets rid of excess property. For example, it sought to streamline the process for reviewing historic buildings before demolishing, selling, or otherwise disposing of them.

However, VA needs to better document its disposal procedures and track projects to help staff navigate complex federal and agency disposal rules. We made 3 recommendations to help address the issue.

An Empty and Deteriorating VA Building in California

This is a photo of a VA property with damage to the exterior.

This is a photo of a VA property with damage to the exterior.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Andrew Von Ah
(202) 512-2834
vonaha@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

Conducting required environmental and historic reviews in a timely manner is among the challenges the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) faces in its real property disposal process. These reviews include assessing the potential effects of property disposals on the environment and historic preservation. VA is taking steps to address these ongoing challenges. For example, VA has established a working group consisting of experts in historic preservation, environmental reviews, and real property to assist facilities' managers in expediting disposals. However, other ongoing challenges remain, including the marketability of VA properties and VA's lack of clear procedures for property disposals. While VA has guidance on disposals at the broad portfolio level, GAO determined that this guidance does not contain step-by-step procedures at the project level to assist facilities' managers to plan, implement, and execute disposals for the different disposal options. (See figure.) For example, a number of managers told GAO that they were not familiar with actions to take when transferring properties to a third party or turning over excess property to the General Services Administration for disposal. VA officials commented that facilities' managers do not frequently dispose of properties, so a procedural document outlining the steps and who is responsible for taking those steps may help staff navigate more complex disposal processes and avoid missteps and delays.

Description of Selected Disposal Options for Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)

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VA has enhanced its data collection on vacant properties, but the agency does not collect information needed to track and monitor disposal projects at the headquarters level. For example, VA requires facilities' managers to verify and certify the validity of vacant property data in the database used to manage real property—the Capital Asset Inventory. On disposal projects, however, VA lacks certain information, such as the status of environmental or historical reviews, to monitor progress. According to VA, the Capital Asset Inventory currently does not have enough capacity to collect key information and supporting documentation. VA officials said they plan to increase the capacity, but VA has not yet included some key information in the Capital Asset Inventory that could enable VA to monitor the progress of disposals. Without information on the status of disposal projects, VA cannot readily track and monitor its progress and identify areas where facilities' managers may need additional assistance.

Why GAO Did This Study

VA is one of the largest federal property-holding agencies, and its inventory of vacant buildings has generally increased over the last 6 years. Disposing of its excess properties has been a long-standing challenge.

GAO was asked to review how VA manages its real property disposals. This report addresses: (1) the challenges VA faces in disposing of its vacant properties and how it is addressing those challenges and (2) the extent to which VA is tracking and monitoring the disposal of its vacant properties.

GAO reviewed VA's policies and planning documents regarding property disposals. GAO also selected 31 properties that were either disposed of or planned for disposal in fiscal year 2017, among other selection criteria. GAO interviewed VA officials and stakeholders involved in the disposal of the 31 selected properties and familiar with VA's disposal process, including steps VA is taking to address challenges.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making three recommendations. These include developing disposal procedures for facilities' managers to help plan, implement, and execute disposal projects and collecting key information on the status of disposal projects, as VA implements its plans to increase the capacity of VA's Capital Asset Inventory. VA concurred with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Andrew Von Ah at (202) 512-2834 or vonaha@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: VA is one of the largest federal real property-holding agencies, and its inventory of vacant buildings had generally increased from fiscal years 2012 through 2017. Disposing of its excess real properties has been a long-standing challenge for the agency. In 2019, GAO reported that VA lacks clear procedures to manage disposals of unneeded properties. VA's guidance does not specify sequential steps and actions that need to be taken to plan, implement, and execute property disposals. While GAO found documentation on policies and procedures exists for some specific disposal methods, such as enhanced-use lease projects, VA officials stated that policies and procedures for other disposal actions, such as transferring or declaring property as excess and disposing of it through GSA, are not documented. VA officials also commented that their regional and local facilities managers are responsible for making disposal decisions, developing a disposal plan, and executing the disposal; however, they may also lack the knowledge and experience to manage disposals. Without procedural documentation that describes the disposal options and the actions needed to carry out the disposal, it is difficult for regional and local facilities managers to plan, implement, and execute the different disposal options available and efficiently dispose of vacant properties. Therefore, GAO recommended that VA should develop clear procedures for each of VA's disposal options to help facilities' managers plan, implement, and execute projects to dispose of vacant and unneeded properties. In 2020, GAO confirmed that VA has developed clear guidance designed to help facilities managers plan and implement disposals. VA developed a Real Property Disposal Guide that explains the various options available and the corresponding processes which should be followed when disposing of VA's real property assets. This guide discusses the decision-making criteria when considering disposal of vacant buildings, structures and/or land. It also lists disposal options available, the priority in which to consider these options, and the required steps to complete a disposal for each of the options. VA officials noted that the primary purpose of their Real Property Disposal Guide was to help facilities managers with the details of disposal options, which was missing from its earlier policies and procedures for disposal. They also stated that the Real Property Disposal Guide bridges this gap by its disposal decision tree, step-by-step processes, and identifying responsible offices for each disposal option. Thus, VA facilities managers have the necessary guidance to navigate through the complex disposal process and avoid missteps or delays in the disposal of VA's unneeded properties.

    Recommendation: The Secretary should develop clear procedures for each of VA's disposal options to help facilities' managers plan, implement, and execute projects to dispose of vacant and unneeded properties. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: VA is one of the largest federal real property-holding agencies, and its inventory of vacant buildings had generally increased from fiscal years 2012 through 2017. Disposing of its excess real properties has been a long-standing challenge for the agency. In 2019, GAO reported that VA lacks key information needed to track and monitor the disposal of its vacant properties. VA does not have the ability in its Capital Asset Inventory (CAI)-the database VA uses to manage real property-to collect detailed data on the status of disposal projects. Specifically, the CAI does not contain data fields for facility managers to input detailed information on the status of disposal actions and compliance reviews, among other things necessary to complete disposal. While VA officials planned to enhance the CAI, including adding data fields for steps in the disposal process, the proposed changes did not include key information, such as the start dates for those compliance reviews. Thus, VA could not monitor and track when the reviews began and how the disposal process is progressing. VA officials in headquarters also told GAO that without data on the actions and status of disposals, including steps taken to complete environmental and historic reviews, they are unable to track and monitor the progress of disposal projects-including the length of time these reviews take-and to identify any areas where management may assist local facilities in disposing of properties. Therefore, GAO recommended that VA should collect data on disposal status information, including time frames (e.g., environmental and historical reviews' starting dates), to ensure VA has the information it needs to track the length of the disposal process and identify any areas where management may assist local facilities in implementing property disposals. In 2020, GAO confirmed that VA has enhanced CAI to gather more information pertaining to the status of disposal, including timelines related to environmental and historic reviews. VA enhanced the CAI to include both start and end dates as data fields and developed business rules specifying the start and end dates for the statutory compliance activities. VA updated instructions for completing data in the CAI and developed online web-based training related to real property disposal and posted it on VA's intranet to make it available to all local facilities. VA officials noted that the enhancement in CAI will result in VA officials identifying possible compliance shortcomings for disposals and address specific issues directly with local facilities managers implementing the disposal project. Thus, VA management has the information it needs to efficiently track, monitor, and more quickly expedite the disposal of VA's unneeded properties.

    Recommendation: As VA implements its plans to enhance the CAI to collect key data on disposal projects, the Secretary should collect data on disposal status information and time frames (e.g., environmental and historical reviews' starting dates) to ensure VA has the information it needs to track the length of the disposal process and identify any areas where management may assist local facilities in implementing property disposals. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: VA is one of the largest federal real property-holding agencies, and its inventory of vacant buildings had generally increased from fiscal years 2012 through 2017. Disposing of its excess real properties has been a long-standing challenge for the agency. In 2019, GAO reported that VA lacks key information needed to track and monitor the disposal of VA's vacant properties. Specifically, GAO found that VA officials in headquarters do not collect documentation, such as environmental and historical compliance documents that could allow staff to verify the status of disposal projects. VA requires its regional and local facilities' managers to record a planned or completed disposal in the Capital Asset Inventory (CAI)--the database VA uses to manage real property. However, a key VA official told GAO the CAI database does not currently have enough space for facility managers to upload supporting documentation, including environmental and historic review documents. VA officials said they planned to increase the capacity of the CAI to allow managers to upload disposal documentation. However, VA had not yet included some key information in its plans to increase the capacity of CAI that could enable VA to monitor and track the progress of disposals. Without information on the status of disposal projects, VA cannot readily track and monitor disposals. Therefore, GAO recommended that VA should increase the capacity of CAI to allow local facilities to upload disposal-specific documentation, such as environmental and historical compliance documents. In 2020, GAO confirmed that VA has increased the capacity of CAI to accommodate and enable the attachment of compliance documentation, such as environmental and historic review documents, to enable VA management to retain organizational knowledge of the disposal project and assist in expediting the disposal. As part of enhancing the database, VA estimated approximately five megabytes (MBs) per document with seven potential uploads per record - six uploads for Compliance categories and one upload for the transaction record, such as a deed. According to VA officials, the additional file space in the database has been planned for based on historical disposals along with an annual growth rate and a margin of safety. VA officials noted that the enhanced capacity of CAI will result in VA officials identifying possible compliance shortcomings for disposals and address specific issues directly with local facilities managers implementing the disposal project. Thus, VA management has the information it needs to track, monitor, and expedite the disposal of VA's unneeded properties.

    Recommendation: As VA pursues its plans to enhance the CAI, the Secretary should increase the capacity of the CAI to allow local facilities to upload disposal-specific documentation, such as environmental- and historical-review documents, to ensure all documentation related to a property's disposal is available to appropriate parties, including VA officials. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

 

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