As administrators debate the future of telework for the federal workforce, estimates unveiled before Congress Thursday show that as much as 75% of agency headquarter office space in and around Washington, D.C., is going unused, on average.
The Government Accountability Office found that 17 of 24 agencies surveyed in January, February and March are using an average of 25% or less of their available building capacity. That’s as the government pays about $2 billion a year to maintain a real estate portfolio of hundreds of millions of square feet, regardless of capacity.
That concerned lawmakers on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, who lamented that Congress been cutting checks to GSA to maintain buildings that may be underutilized, outdated or disfunctional.
“I have been a firm believer that if agencies aren’t using their space, they should lose it,” said Chairman Scott Perry, a Republican from Pennsylvania. “And let’s be clear – this goes beyond bringing federal employees back to the office, because even pre-COVID, we knew space utilization was an issue.”
Telework further lowered building utilization, officials said. All agencies told GAO that their in-office workforce has not returned to pre-pandemic levels due to persisting telework. In recent weeks, however, some agencies have ratcheted up in-person work, but there lacks a uniform interpretation or application of telework government-wide. That’s making it hard for agencies to assess how much space they need going forward.
Republicans have frequently pointed to eliminating telework as a way to address space usage by agencies, but experts said it’s not a panacea.
GAO’s report shows agencies had excess space even before the pandemic. Federal real property management has been on the high-risk list since 2003.
“All assigned staff could go to a building, and it could still be underutilized if the building has more space than it needs,” said David Marroni, acting director of GAO’s physical infrastructure team.
One unnamed agency reviewed by GAO said it would operate at less than 100% of capacity even if all assigned staff were in the building at the same time.
Rep. Derrick Van Orden, a Republican from Wisconsin, pressed Nina Albert, the commissioner of GSA’s Public Buildings Service, when she couldn’t tell him how many of her employees were working in-person.
“We don’t attribute being able to do our jobs to whether or not we’re sitting in an office,” she said.
Besides telework, there are other policy inconsistencies that are making it hard for agencies to determine whether space should be shared, given up or renovated.
For one, agencies set their own standards for utilization. One bureau may count use badge swipes to measure usage, while another relies on network logins or physical desks.
Another suggestion has been for buildings to accommodate more than one agency, but in their feedback, agencies said they’re reluctant to share.
According to GAO’s report, one official said leadership is doesn’t want to share headquarters space because it could “lower their perceived standing as a cabinet-level agency.”
Republicans and Democrats agreed it’s the right time to think about the future of federal buildings, especially since more than half of GSA leases are expiring within five years.
Agencies need to make those decisions now, said Marroni.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.