Which federal agencies are authorized to lease property from the private sector? If you had asked that question of any federal official before last month, you might have drawn no more than an educated guess, if not an outright blank.
Certainly there is the General Services Administration (GSA), which acts as a kind of super-landlord and property-management authority for the federal government overall. Currently, GSA leases about 192 million square feet of property from the private sector, comprising nearly 7,000 office and warehouse spaces, a vast set of holdings. But many other federal agencies and entities have the ability and authority to rent space independently of the GSA—the US Postal Service, for instance, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—whether by virtue of their enabling legislation or by some appropriations act giving them the power to do so.
Until July, no one could say for sure just how many agencies had such leasing authorization. The reason for that is that not all federal agencies, as of now, are required to submit data to the Federal Real Property Council (FRPC), which falls under the aegis of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). To multiply acronyms, as part of this effort, GSA has been charged with creating a comprehensive inventory of federal properties, an effort known as the Federal Real Property Profile (FRPP). An agency not governed by the FRPC—and there are many loopholes—is not required to file data with the FRPP.
All this came to the fore in a recent report prepared by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) at the direction of the House of Representatives. In hearings before the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure early in July, the GAO report offers testimony that much work remains to be done to “enhance information and coordination,” as the report’s title has it, “among federal entities with leasing authority.”
What the report turns up may be surprising even to those inured to problems of coordination among federal entities. The GAO surveyed 103 of them, and 52, fully half, had independent authority to lease office and warehouse space. Nearly half of them were not bound by the FRPC and so had no reason to provide information to the FRPP, even though the collective holdings of these independent authorities were significant: 944 offices and 164 warehouses, or about 16.6 million square feet of rentable space. Among these agencies were the FAA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the US Patent and Trademark Office. These specific agencies normally lease space through the GSA…except when they do it through their own leasing authorities.
The GAO report, built on data covering the period between 2001 and 2015, makes a number of interesting observations that need to be teased out further. Among them is the fact that, though the possibilities for overcharging would seem to be rife, in general the spaces leased outside GSA purview are fairly priced and in fully 38 percent of cases cost less than GSA leases, while another 30 percent were about the same. Independently leased spaces also tend to be roomier than their GSA-leased counterparts; GSA recommends that federal agencies allow 150 square feet per employee (though this metric varies widely across their agency customers), but most of the independent spaces are at least twice as big.
“The FRPP’s incomplete data set reduces its effectiveness as an oversight and accountability mechanism for entities with independent leasing authority,” the GAO report notes. More actions are surely in the offing, but at a minimum, the report recommends that non-FRPC entities be required to provide information to FRPP and that federal agencies figure out tighter standards to govern leasing.