Most US federal government headquarters buildings less than a quarter full, official report finds

By on 19/07/2023 | Updated on 19/07/2023
The Government Accountability Office said continuing under-utilisation of office space was down to “longstanding challenges” and increased telework since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by kafka4prez via Flickr

Most of the major US federal agencies’ buildings are a quarter full or less, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The GAO measured employees’ attendance at headquarters buildings over a three-week sample period across January, February and March 2023 and found that the buildings of 17 of the 24 agencies it studied were at 25% capacity or less. The buildings of the six other agencies were less than half full – at between 39% and 49% of their capacity on average.

Representative Scott Perry, chair of the Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management Subcommittee – before which the results of the study were presented during a hearing last week – called the findings “quite honestly devastating,” and said he believes “if agencies aren’t using their space, they should lose it”.

The GAO said continuing under-utilisation of office space was down to “longstanding challenges” and increased telework since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While all agencies have resumed in-person operations, it is clear that the federal workplace has evolved as agencies have embraced hybrid and remote office environments,” said David Marroni, acting director of the GAO’s physical infrastructure team. “This moment presents a unique opportunity to reconsider various aspects of the federal government’s real property portfolio and how best to align the portfolio with future needs.”

Read more: Experimenting with flexible working: testing out what works in the new world for public services

Agency property officials have identified a number of challenges to increasing their headquarters building utilisation, including a lack of funding to reconfigure existing space to increase office use and support a hybrid working environment; a reluctance to reduce headquarters space caused by concerns about the future of in-office attendance policies and habits; agency leaders’ disinclination to share headquarters space with other agencies; and a lack of standards for how federal agencies should measure utilisation to guide their efforts.

“Federal agencies have long struggled to determine how much office space they needed to fulfil their missions efficiently. Retaining excess and underutilised space is one of the main reasons that federal real property management has remained on GAO’s High-Risk List since 2003,” the accountability office said.

Cost and energy savings

The federal government owns over 500m sq ft of office space, and agencies spend about US$2bn a year operating and maintaining their buildings and about US$5bn a year on leasing them.

The GAO highlighted that better utilisation would help to reduce energy consumption as well as costs.  

It noted that the buildings its personnel visited as part of the study were outdated and ill-suited for modern needs, and that some agencies had voiced concerns that their headquarters were too historic in their designs for renovations that would accommodate a hybrid workforce. 

Its report showed that six agencies’ buildings – the headquarters of the agriculture and housing and urban development departments, the General Services Administration, the Office of Personnel Management, the Small Business Administration, and the Social Services Administration – were only 9% occupied on average over the course of a week.

Read more: ‘Work is an activity, not a place’: how governments are responding to the hybrid working era

Those at the other end of the scale (at between 39% and 49% utilisation), were the Treasury, commerce, homeland security, justice and state departments, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Agencies with building utilisation somewhere in the middle – between 16% and 23% utilisation – included the education, transport, veterans’ affairs, defence, energy, health, interior and labour departments, NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation, and the US Agency for International Development.

Nina Albert, commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Public Buildings Service, asked Congress for more legislative latitude in disposing of unneeded buildings, saying it would enable GSA to help agencies to right-size their portfolios by providing them with the necessary resources.

Disposals delayed

In June, US senators urged the federal government to make progress on the sale of unused federal buildings after an Obama-era disposals initiative ground to a halt.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee heard that the Public Buildings Reform Board – created in 2016 to recommend what government properties could be sold – had not been provided with sufficient data by the Biden administration to undertake its work, according to Government Executive.

The committee heard that following a first round of sales that the board recommended to the General Services Administration – 10 properties were sold for nearly US$200m – the work of the board had stalled due to a lack of data and because it does not have enough members to meet its legislated quorum.

President Joe Biden has requested US$28bn to revamp federal buildings. Congress provided US$3.4bn for that purpose as part of the Inflation Reduction Act.

Read more: US government told to quicken pace of federal property sales

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About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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