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Incomplete data on federal property hurts budget decisions, report says

The General Services Administration is doing a poor job of tracking federal property and is making it hard for Congress to make well-informed budget decisions about the government's real estate holdings, according to a new report by the General Accounting Office.

GSA maintains a governmentwide database of hundreds of thousands of federal real property assets located around the world, including embassies, office buildings, laboratories, courthouses and post offices. But the information contained in the database is "unreliable and limited in usefulness" GAO said in its report, "Federal Real Property: Better Governmentwide Data Needed for Strategic Decisionmaking" (GAO-02-342).

Every year, GSA polls 31 federal agencies that own property to get updated information about the agencies' holdings, including the address, square footage and property type. GAO found that information on only five of the 31 agencies was consistently updated during fiscal years 1997 to 2000. At least nine of the 31 agencies had not updated this information since before fiscal 1997.

"GSA's annual reports on the worldwide inventory were of minimal value when issued and do not reflect the diverse and constantly changing nature of the huge federal real property inventory," the report said.

According to GAO, Congress and officials at the Office of Management and Budget don't have the information they need to make informed budgeting and property management decisions. To make better decisions, budgeters need to know what property is owned, where the property is located, how much the property is worth, what the overall costs of maintaining the property are, and what is being done to protect and preserve it.

Part of the problem rests with the agencies. A 1983 executive order required agencies to maintain inventories of their property, but, for various reasons, many agencies have done it poorly, according to GAO. For example, an August in-house GAO report found that the Defense Department, which holds the most federal property, reported inaccurate and incomplete data to GSA.

GSA has suspended reporting requirements for 2001 while agency officials pursue remedies. For starters, the agency is setting up a real-time database so that needed information can be accessed at any time.

GSA should also set up performance goals and give stakeholders and decision-makers an action plan detailing time frames, estimated costs and needed resources for getting better real property data, the report said.