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GSA Buildings Chief a 'Convert' to Open-Office Setups

Concept not only saves money, but makes a "dramatic difference" in employee interactions, Dong says.

After eight months at the General Services Administration as public buildings commissioner, Norman Dong now admits to trepidation he initially felt at the prospect of losing the private office he enjoyed when he was acting controller at the Office of Management and Budget.

But in an interview with reporters Thursday, he declared himself a convert to the sometimes-controversial open-office design his agency embraces and promotes for other agencies. “I can honestly say I would never go back because it makes a dramatic difference in how we interact with one another,” Dong told reporters in one of the agency’s conference rooms. Previously, the GSA administrator and Federal Acquisition Service commissioner “were all in different corners of the building and you [practically] had to take a bus or a train to meet,” he said.

 “Now we’re now 10 feet apart, with our smart interior design” that lowers physical communication barriers while encouraging teleworking and desk-sharing, noted Dong, whose 6,000 employees oversee 378 million square feet of government-owned and leased space that houses a million federal workers.

Dong was also sold on the open-office concept because of today’s strapped budgets. He recalled consulting a predecessor at the Buildings Service, Robert Peck, in 2011 on how to cut costs without subjecting agency employees to painful layoffs. “He said we spend too much on real property around the country,” said Dong, who at the time was chief financial officer at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

FEMA needed its “bench strength” of employees to deal with increasing disasters, Dong noted, which is why it pursued ways to better use space to  “co-locate, consolidate and reduce the footprint.” Those reforms are now saving FEMA $10 million yearly.

Describing a recent visit with FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate at his redesigned C Street Southwest headquarters, Dong said, “I’ve never seen anyone so proud.” The new arrangement “increases productivity, but it’s more than just dollars and cents. There is heightened awareness among agencies that spending dollars unnecessarily comes at the expense of mission productivity.”

The dollars do figure in Dong’s plans to take advantage of the “currently healthy economy” to perform “better up-front planning” to leverage GSA’s leasing authority in partnering with the private sector for swaps to get better market rates. A good model, he said, is Washington’s Old Post Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, which has been leased to developer Donald Trump to erect a luxury hotel. “He is making a more productive use of the federal assets than when it was a half-empty food court” and home to two small agencies, the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, Dong said.

The buildings service will continue working toward the goal of a 30 percent cut in energy costs by 2015 through emerging technologies and further efficiencies in maintenance expenses.

Despite threats from Congress to pull the plug on the ongoing effort to consolidate sub-agencies of the Homeland Security Department on the Southwest Washington campus of St. Elizabeths mental hospital, Dong said GSA continues to support the eight-year-old effort, which would save $900 million over 30 years. “DHS is in 40 or 50 locations, so it’s not just the dollars and cents, but the logistics of being able to work with one another,” he said. “There are economic and mission arguments” for continuing.

Dong dismissed a suggestion that Republican gains in this month’s election might affect his agency’s choice of a new headquarters site for the FBI, for which both Virginia and Maryland congressional delegations have competed. GSA continues to “be visible to Congress” while studying proposed sites’ potential compliance with the National Environmental Protection Act. It is expected to issue a request for quotation from developers in December.

Asked about a recent controversy on Capitol Hill over whether the renovation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s building contains extravagant design luxuries, Dong said, “We need buildings to reflect the importance of what the agency does. We don’t want Soviet-style buildings, we want to inspire people to come to work every day.” Careful spending and attractiveness “are not mutually exclusive,” he added. “We can strike a balance.”

Dong said GSA continues to support an OMB proposal for creation of a private citizens property board to recommend to Congress bulk packages of federal buildings that could be sold. “We see a lot of value in that specific proposal,” he said.  A slightly different version of the plan passed the House in the last Congress, but stalled in the Senate.

After mentioning that he had traveled to all 11 of GSA’s administrative regions, Dong acknowledged that morale in Region 9 on the West Coast was impacted by the 2012 scandal involving over-spending at a training conference in Las Vegas. (Former regional commissioner Jeff Neely, chief organizer of the conference, was indicted in September.) Dong said “the staff went through a difficult time, but are focusing on moving ahead.”

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