Courts call capital planning to order

ksaldarini@govexec.com

For federal judges, the phrase "Meet me in my chambers!" commands immediate respect. But a decade ago, many newly confirmed judges couldn't utter such a command because poor workspace planning often left them without offices for weeks.

According to Ross Eisenman, chief of the policy and resource management staff at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOC), the judiciary's process for figuring out space needs was ad hoc at best. "Only after a new judge was confirmed did the facilities planning process begin," he said. "Judges were sitting around in libraries just waiting to have a place to work."

Finding a permanent workspace for a judge took between 18 months and seven years, a 1987 National Academy of Public Administration study found. The report also warned that the judicial branch did not adequately plan for both the quantity and the quality of its future housing needs. New courthouses were needed to replace aging facilities that did not meet basic security specifications, such as secured corridors. Modern courthouses also required flexibility to accommodate future technology changes. Raised floors, GSA discovered, were necessary to hide computer and media wires prevalent in modern courtrooms.

So, in 1988, the AOC created the Long-Range Facilities Planning (LRFP) process, which recently won an award for its innovative approach to property management. The LRFP uses statistical models to project long-range staffing and space needs for the 94 U.S. judicial districts. The program uses historical data as a baseline to forecast future caseload levels. Area demographics, economic data and criminal activity reports are also used to anticipate caseload growth and subsequent staffing needs at each court level. Growth projections are then used to estimate future courthouse space needs. Individuals at the U.S. Attorney's office and at the court unit level review projections to determine if the computer-generated figures need adjustment.

The LRFP process can project space needs in 5-, 10-, 20-, and 30-year increments. Since its implementation, the LRFP has identified 157 new necessary courthouse projects. As a result, GSA began a building program in 1991 to replace outdated court facilities and accommodate growth in the federal court system. Of the 157 identified building projects, 48 are fully funded, 16 are partially funded, 23 are not yet funded, and 70 are projected for the year 2004 and beyond. According to the AOC, these projects combine to make the new program the largest public works project authorized by Congress in United States history.

One of the practical results of the planning process is an effort to prioritize building projects, said Bill Lehman, the AOC's acting assistant director for facilities, security and administrative services. "Congress placed a $500 million annual cap on the amount they would spend on courthouse construction. By prioritizing our building projects, we help Congress decide how to make the most efficient use of taxpayer dollars," he said.

The General Accounting Office, Congress and the Office of Management and Budget have identified capital planning as a problem area for managers throughout the federal government.

"Prudent capital planning can help agencies to make the most of limited resources, while failure to make timely and effective capital acquisitions can result in increased long-term costs," Paul L. Posner, GAO's director of budget issues, told the President's Commission to Study Capital Budgeting in March. "Our past work has identified a variety of federal capital projects where acquisitions have yielded poor results-costing more than anticipated, falling behind schedule, and failing to meet mission needs and goals."

The AOC's facilities planning process is easily transferable to other federal agencies, provided the agency has a database of historical information that can be used for forecasting facility needs, Lehman said. The Patent and Trademark Office's records on patent applications or the Veterans Administration's benefit claims data are examples of such historical information. Agencies wishing to replicate the AOC's efforts should take the following steps, Lehman said:

  1. Identify the primary measure that tracks the agency's workload. For example, the IRS might consider tax returns a workload measure. Hospitals might use number of operations performed.
  2. Create a database of historical workload data.
  3. Use statistics to determine how many personnel and how much space is needed for different workload levels.
  4. Project the agency's future growth needs based on these relationships.
  5. Organize a review committee of responsible parties to assess and refine the projections.
  6. Apply the process to each organization in the agency to create a national plan.
  7. Update the workload data on a regular basis to ensure projection accuracy.

GSA recently honored the AOC for the facility planning process with its Annual Achievement Award for Real Property Innovation. The award honors achievements in the federal real property community and was created to communicate best practices and policies among real property professionals and federal agencies.

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