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Is Opulence In or Out?

Looking around at government offices, it's clear that two dramatically different kinds of managers control the interior decorating dollars.

The first type is tight-fisted, sparing only the bare essentials for federal workers. Doors. Walls. Cubicle panels. Plain white desks. Those chairs on rollers with blue back-and-seat cushions (using the term cushions loosely). Aesthetic impression is clearly not a top concern for these managers. The approach they've taken is all business. It's a place to work, nothing more. You wouldn't know from looking at it that these are offices of the most powerful organization on earth. The piece of paper taped on the wall by the door may say "U.S. Government," but it could just as well be a fly-by-night telemarketing operation for all the care devoted to workplace design. On the downside, such offices are not exactly inspiring places to work. On the upside, they display a commitment to frugal use of taxpayer dollars.

The second type of facilities manager clearly believes that government offices should demonstrate the power and permanence of the United States. These managers hang car-crushing chandeliers high above marble flooring and install oak paneling in offices. Fireplaces are a must, as are mirrored mantels, heavy curtains, solid wood desks and leather chairs. Many of these offices were built according to a paradigm of opulent design: the headquarters office of the General Services Administration administrator, circa 1913. More modern-day members of this class of manager prefer flat-screen televisions, metallic finishes and high-grade, if unnecessary, security flourishes such as remote controlled office doors. Such were the accoutrements ordered up by a previous head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives when its new headquarters building was being designed a few years ago. They may not win awards from today's good-government pork busters, but these managers are thinking about the ages.

Facilities managers governmentwide are about to be flush with funds to redesign government workplaces. The economic stimulus bill just signed into law includes $4.5 billion for "green" construction in federal offices. And that's just the start. Agencies ranging from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the Homeland Security Department to the U.S. Judiciary are getting line-item appropriations to build and modernize.

As the money begins to run into agency coffers, managers will be under pressure to get the dollars back out the door quickly. The funds are coming from a stimulus package after all, one that is supposed to pump money into the economy quickly to create more jobs in 2009 and 2010. That pressure could stymie managers who prefer fine architecture and design, instead pushing money into prefab projects that emphasize function over aesthetic beauty. On the other hand, the pressure could embolden executives with expensive tastes to pad their offices with physical emblems of power.

Either way, the stimulus package promises accountability and transparency for the dollars spent, with agencies required to file numerous reports detailing where the money went. Maybe the reports should include pictures to show whether frugality or fine art is carrying federal workplaces into the future.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.


Brian Friel is founder of One Nation Analytics, an independent research, analytics and consulting firm for the federal market.

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