GAO Report Highlights Need for Better Data on Historic Buildings

While the federal government owns thousands of historic structures, maintaining those properties in a time of increasingly constrained budgets poses considerable challenges. One of those challenges involves the need for accurate information about such properties. Where are they, in what condition are they; are they occupied or vacant, being used by the government or leased to others? Should a vacant or underutilized historic building be renovated for future government use? Or should it be sold or leased to the private sector? To help answer these and other questions, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently recommended improvements to the Federal Real Property Database (FRPP) that would increase the consistency and completeness of data on historic buildings.

The December 2012 GAO report, titled “Federal Real Property: Improved Data Needed to Strategically Manage Historic Buildings, Address Multiple Challenges,” focused on three agencies—GSA, the National Park Service (NPS) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)—that own and manage significant numbers of historic buildings.  Although it reported that “all three agencies have undertaken efforts in recent years to identify the historic buildings across their real property portfolios, nominate those buildings to the National Register, and are working to manage those buildings in an effort to comply with the requirements of NHPA [National Historic Preservation Act of 1996] and executive orders,” it also noted that tighter budgets in recent years have constrained the agencies’ ability to maintain and repair their historic buildings. And it pointed out that poor data management practices have led to inconsistent and erroneous information in the FRPP. GAO auditors found, for example, that the West Wing of the White House—which is held by GSA and has been designated as a national historic landmark since 1960—is listed in the FRPP as “not evaluated.” Likewise, the FRPP indicates that the NPS had 1,500 historic landmark buildings in 2011, while the NPS reported to an architectural advisory council that it had only 177.

“The FRPP database’s lack of completeness and consistency for historic data are not consistent with sound data collection practices,” the report said.  It recommended that GSA—in collaboration and consultation with the NPS, the VA, the Federal Real Property Council (FRPC) and other FRPC member agencies—should ensure that the action plan being developed to improve the FRPP addresses the need for accurate information on historic buildings. That information, the report stressed, “would better equip stakeholders to make decisions about where to direct limited federal resources for historic preservation and foster greater accountability and transparency.” GSA agreed with the report’s recommendations, and reported that it already has begun taking action to rectify inconsistencies between the FRPP and its own data sources.