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VA Real Property: Enhanced Communication and Performance Measurement Could Improve Capital Asset Management

GAO-22-103962 Published: Oct 29, 2021. Publicly Released: Nov 29, 2021.
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Fast Facts

The Department of Veterans Affairs operates one of the largest health care systems in the country. It owned 5,625 buildings and leased 1,690 more in FY 2020 to help provide this care. VA has a growing maintenance backlog and estimated that it needs $22.6 billion to correct facility deficiencies. It also needs to adapt facilities for changing veteran demographics.

We made recommendations on facility management issues we found. For example, while VA collects data on facility condition, it doesn't have measurable goals for how conditions should improve over time—so it's unclear whether its facility management efforts are meeting the VA's needs.

A VA medical center building

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) manages a vast portfolio of capital assets to provide healthcare to enrolled veterans. GAO found that VA has faced and continues to face challenges meeting three of the key GAO-identified characteristics of an asset management framework. These are (1) leadership support that provides necessary resources, such as staffing; (2) communication across traditional agency boundaries; and (3) continuous assessment and improvement of asset management performance. These characteristics are designed to optimize funding and agency decision-making.

  • Staffing resources. Regarding leadership that provides necessary resources, GAO has previously identified staffing challenges that affected VA's ability to manage its assets and that resulted in consequences such as delayed projects and difficulties managing projects. VA officials continued to describe staffing challenges, such as difficulties in planning and executing projects and limits on the number of projects that facilities can undertake. VA officials described efforts they are making to address these challenges. Such efforts include, for example, developing new staffing models and establishing special salary rates for engineers. However, it is too early to determine the extent to which these efforts will improve staffing.
  • Communication. Regarding communication across traditional agency boundaries, VA has taken steps to improve communication among offices with asset management responsibilities. Such steps include issuing an asset management directive that VA officials said would help to facilitate such communication. However, GAO found continuing instances of insufficient (1) communication early in project development between local offices and the Office of Construction and Facilities Management and (2) communication between construction offices and the Office of Information and Technology to ensure information technology needs are met when bringing facilities online. This lack of communication can be attributed, in part, to a lack of direction from VA on how and when to communicate. Improving communication between these offices could help prevent unnecessary delays in projects' development and execution and help VA bring space online more efficiently.
  • Performance measurement. Regarding the need for agencies to continuously assess the performance of their asset management systems and implement necessary improvements, VA lacks sufficient performance goals and measures. Although it collects information on its facilities and has certain broad strategic goals, the agency does not have measurable goals to help assess its asset management and to determine how well that management is helping VA meet those broad strategic goals, such as a goal to reduce the amount of deferred maintenance. Although VA officials acknowledged the importance of such measures, they noted that they had found developing performance measures to be challenging, for reasons such as difficulty in attributing results to agency actions. Nevertheless, GAO's prior work indicates the value of doing so. In the absence of such measures, VA is limited in its ability to determine the extent to which its asset management is helping VA to achieve its strategic goals and objectives.

Why GAO Did This Study

In providing healthcare to over 9 million enrolled veterans, VA manages a portfolio that includes 5,625 owned and 1,690 leased buildings as of fiscal year 2020. VA has pressing needs associated with these assets, not only maintaining or replacing aging facilities but also adapting to changes in veterans' demographics and needs.

GAO was asked to review VA's management of these real property (capital) assets. This report examines: (1) VA's management of its staffing resources for constructing and maintaining its capital assets, (2) VA's communication among offices involved in and supporting capital asset management, and (3) VA's assessment of its performance in capital asset management. GAO reviewed VA documentation and prior GAO and other reports about VA's capital asset management. GAO also interviewed officials at VA headquarters offices involved in asset management, VA officials at a non-generalizable selection of eight geographically dispersed VA medical centers and seven regional offices that managed the various types of VA capital projects, and representatives from four veterans service organizations.

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Recommendations

GAO is making three recommendations, that VA: specify how construction and field offices should communicate during project development; define the information technology office's role in carrying out projects; and develop performance goals and measures to assess VA's capital asset management. VA concurred with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Veterans Affairs The Secretary of VA should ensure that the Office of Construction and Facilities Management and the regions and medical centers follow key practices for communication during planning, development, and proposal of all types of projects, including specifying how and when communication should occur. (Recommendation 1)
Open
VA concurred with our recommendation. In its 180-day letter, VA stated that the Construction and Facilities Management (CFM) office has initiated a project activation working group with partners from the Office of Information and Technology (OIT) and the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) Healthcare Engineering and Facilities Program Office, to improve communication in the planning and execution of projects throughout the project lifecycle. VA said that the working group has met on a bi-weekly basis for the past six months focusing on project delivery improvement opportunities through improved communication and coordination. According to VA, the working group is using an Integrated Master Schedule (IMS) framework to coordinate requirements and milestone activities. A draft framework for initial activation activities has been developed, and a parallel framework is being incorporated for OIT procurement and installation activities. As of March 2023, these documents are being reviewed by the agency before being finalized. We will continue to monitor this recommendation.
Department of Veterans Affairs The Secretary of VA should clearly define the Office of Information and Technology's role in developing and executing construction projects to include improved communication between the office and the regions and medical centers throughout the project to ensure all parties are aware of project status. (Recommendation 2)
Open
VA concurred with our recommendation. In its 180-day letter, VA stated that the Office of Information and Technology (OIT) regularly meets with VA, the Office of Construction and Facilities Management (CFM), and Veterans Health Administration (VHA) partners in a collaborative workgroup. VA said that the workgroup is developing processes and procedures to clearly define OIT's role in developing and executing construction projects and to improve communication between all offices, and that OIT has initiatives under way to improve stakeholder engagement, including mapping of processes and creating a Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed (RACI) matrix, Integrated Master Schedule (IMS), and enhanced governance structure. The workgroup is planning to leverage best practices to increase collaboration, enhance governance, improve data quality, and increase transparency between the various organizations. As of March 2023, these documents are being reviewed by the agency before being finalized. We will continue to monitor this recommendation.
Department of Veterans Affairs
Priority Rec.
The Secretary of VA should develop a set of performance goals and related measures based on key practices to allow VA to assess the performance of its capital assets and make any necessary improvements to its management of those assets. (Recommendation 3)
Closed – Implemented
GAO previously identified key characteristics of an asset management framework that can help federal agencies manage their assets and resources effectively. One key characteristic-evaluating and improving asset management practices-states that organizations should evaluate the performance of their asset management systems and implement necessary improvements. This characteristic emphasized that continuously evaluating the performance of an agency's asset management framework and implementing needed changes can optimize the value the agency's assets provide. In 2021, GAO reported that while the Veterans Administration (VA) has some strategic level goals related to asset management, it lacked performance goals and measures needed to measure its progress in achieving them. VA's fiscal year 2018-2024 strategic plan and fiscal year 2022 Annual Performance Plan and Report laid out certain strategic-level goals for asset management. However, GAO's review found that VA lacked measurable goals that are linked to these strategic goals as leading practices recommend. GAO also found that VA collects information on its facilities, but had not developed performance goals and measures to help it evaluate its asset management or assess how well it was helping VA meet its broad strategic goals. VA acknowledged the importance of having performance measures, but VA officials said it is difficult to develop performance measures for asset management. Although VA had not yet established measurable goals and related measures for asset management, VA officials explained that they collect information on the agency's assets that helped VA track the status of its assets and prioritize construction and maintenance projects. Nevertheless, VA had not yet used this information to develop measurable goals or targets for asset management that would help VA determine whether its asset management was helping achieve its strategic goals. Without measurable goals for its capital asset management and associated performance measures to determine the extent to which VA was achieving those goals, VA lacked reasonable assurance that the agency is making optimal use of its resources. Further, performance measures could also help Congress evaluate VA's management of its capital assets and make decisions regarding those assets. Therefore, GAO recommended that VA should develop a set of performance goals and related measures based on key practices to allow VA to assess the performance of its capital assets and make any necessary improvements. In October 2022, VA issued a report detailing capital asset management performance goals and metrics that the agency developed that will allow it to measure progress toward VA's strategic goals. Specifically, the report included performance goals and related metrics such as tracking gaps in condition and space relative to the long-range plan cost for a given planning cycle, reducing the variance between planned project execution and actual execution, and reducing the number of underutilized properties. In line with key practices identified by GAO and the National Academies of Sciences, VA developed measurable performance goals coupled with performance measures that can be used to assess how well VA's goals are being met. These goals and metrics will allow VA to assess the performance of its capital assets by setting goals and tracking the extent to which VA is meeting those goals. VA also prepared a plan that laid out its objectives, strategy, roles and responsibilities, and timelines for implementing its capital asset performance metrics. VA plans to have all metrics implemented and incorporated into planning and reporting processes by the end of fiscal year 2025. VA's performance goals and metrics will better position VA to assess the performance of its capital asset management, make necessary improvements to it, and provide actionable information to Congress.

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Topics

Asset managementCapital assetsConstructionEngineeringHealth care centersHuman capital managementMilitary communicationPerformance measurementVeteransVeterans affairsVeterans real property