The Waste of Federal Government Office Space

Washington, D.C. can be an awful place during the summer. “Horrible, hot, and humid” is the phrase that headlines Washingtonian‘s Caroline Cunningham 2017 article discussing how to cope with it. By the end of the article, it’s clear relief can only be found from “cold, sweet, recirculated air.”

Then again, perhaps the only thing worse than summer in Washington, D.C. is winter. The nation’s capital is infamous for shutting down whenever it snows. Often for days.

How lucky it is then that the people who work in Washington, D.C., primarily bureaucrats who toil for the federal government, can work in their agencies’ climate-controlled buildings. Air-conditioned during summer and heated during winter, they are maintained to ensure U.S. government employees can work comfortably throughout the year.

Except, as the General Accounting Office recently testified after they looked to find out how the federal government’s buildings were being used, they came up incredibly short.

Seventeen of the 24 federal agencies in GAO’s review used an estimated average 25 percent or less of their headquarters buildings’ capacity in a three-week sample period across January, February, and March of 2023. On the higher range, agencies used an estimated 39 to 49 percent of the capacity of their headquarters on average.

The GAO divided the 24 federal agencies into four groups according to how much of their assigned real estate they were using. They produced the chart below to illustrate what they found in their site audit earlier this year.

GAO: Quartile Weekly Utilization Estimated Averages of Federal Headquarters Buildings across Three-Week Sample (One week in each of January, February, and March 2023)

Having these facilities so empty is a problem because the buildings are maintained as if they operate at 100% capacity. The GAO explains how that’s a costly problem for taxpayers:

Underutilized office space has financial and environmental costs. Federal agencies spend about $2 billion a year to operate and maintain federal office buildings regardless of the buildings’ utilization. In addition, agencies spend about $5 billion annually to lease office buildings. Any reduction in office space could reduce these costs. Office buildings also have environmental costs that could be lowered with better utilization. For example, GSA renovated and reduced its current agency real estate footprint, which helped reduce energy consumption and costs.

Spread that reduction across 24 federal agencies, and the savings get much more significant. In an age where modern communication technology makes remote work possible, it would be a huge money saver for taxpayers. It would be a shame to squander such an opportunity.

Biden to Curtail Remote Work by Bureaucrats

Rather than shrink the government’s office space footprint to match better with how it is used, Axios reports President Biden is instead ordering more federal government employees to work at their offices.

President Biden is calling for his Cabinet to “aggressively execute” plans for federal employees to work more in their offices this fall after years of working remotely, according to an email sent Friday to every Cabinet member and obtained by Axios.

Why it matters: It’s Biden’s most overt push yet to get federal employees to return to their offices—a dynamic many businesses also have struggled with as Americans continue to embrace remote work despite the pandemic waning.

Driving the news: In an email to the Cabinet on Friday, White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients wrote: “We are returning to in-person work because it is critical to the well-being of our teams and will enable us to deliver better results for the American people.”

The email continues to suggest federal workers will adopt a hybrid approach, combining both in-office and remote work. As such, it will reduce the savings from properly shrinking the federal government’s waste of office space. But such a hybrid policy leads to more questions than it answers.

For example, it sounds like both Biden and Zients aren’t happy with the results the American people are getting from their public servants who work remotely. Is that really something that can be fixed by making them report to their agencies’ offices more often? If it is, how would it make sense to allow telework for government employees?

How exactly are these teleworking government employees failing to provide the results the American people need? Who, what, when, where, why, and how are they falling short?

Shouldn’t we have answers to these questions before the opportunity to eliminate wasteful government spending is lost?

Craig Eyermann is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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