GAO recommended that GSA fully implement a 2022 recommendation regarding space utilization data.

GAO recommended that GSA fully implement a 2022 recommendation regarding space utilization data. Douglas Rissing / Getty Images

Telework questions pervade recommendation that GSA work on space utilization data

While the amount of office space required by federal agencies has been a longstanding issue, there’s more attention on it due to the increased use of telework since the pandemic.

As federal employees’ continued use of telework remains uncertain, the Government Accountability Office is urging the General Services Administration to implement its 2022 recommendation to better share with federal agencies information learned from data collection regarding how much government office space is used. 

GAO noted in a May 30 letter to GSA that the federal property management agency has started  sharing space utilization data on its website and in a quarterly newsletter. But, in order to fully implement the recommendation, the watchdog said it should develop a plan to ensure all agencies know the costs and benefits of different methods to collect such data. 

“Developing such a plan would help agencies identify cost-effective methods for collecting utilization data, which could be used to make decisions on potential changes to their real property footprints,” Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro wrote in the letter to GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan. 

GAO reported in 2023 that during a three-week review, on average, 17 out of 24 federal agencies in the study only utilized an average of 25% or less of their headquarters office space. Although some agencies disagreed with how office capacity was calculated in the report. 

Even as the White House pushes agencies to require employees to spend more time in-office, congressional Republicans have criticized the Biden administration’s telework policies as being too lenient. 

The Congressional Budget Office recently reported, based on responses to the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey, that federal employees “typically” work from home less than those in the private sector

In general, federal real property management has been on GAO’s high-risk list since 2003.  Telework has highlighted those issues, however, with GAO officials saying last year that agencies’ use of hybrid or remote work “presents a unique opportunity to reconsider various aspects of the federal government’s real property portfolio.”

The watchdog also wrote to House and Senate committees last October that the Office of Management and Budget should establish benchmarks to help better determine agencies’ office space utilization in reflection of how the federal workspace has evolved post-pandemic.

Dodaro echoed those sentiments in the May 30 letter, calling for a more accurate measure of the federal government’s office space needs.

“Challenges in this issue area relate to managing the federal government’s vast and diverse portfolio of real property that costs billions of dollars annually to operate and maintain,” he wrote. “We have found that the federal government could better manage its real property portfolio by collecting reliable real property data and effectively disposing of unneeded real property.”

GAO also highlighted that GSA has implemented two of its priority recommendations since last year. The agency updated its cybersecurity risk guide and took actions to make an agency’s unused personal property, like office supplies, more available to other agencies that need it.