Federal office buildings are sitting mostly empty as telework remains widely used by agencies’ employees, the Government Accountability Office found in a new review.
The congressional watchdog office shared its findings with members of a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee Thursday. David Marroni, acting director of GAO’s physical infrastructure team, said the federal government has a “unique opportunity” in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic to reassess “how much office space it really needs.”
Marroni’s testimony included preliminary results of a GAO report focused on federal use of office space. Twenty-four agencies — including EPA and the departments of Energy and the Interior — were surveyed during a week of each of this year’s first three months. GAO found that 17 of those agencies reported less than 25 percent of their office space was being used.
“Low building utilization has significant costs owed to the government and to the American taxpayer,” Marroni told the Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management Subcommittee. “It costs billions of dollars each year to operate, maintain and lease these buildings.”
Marroni also said that some federal building utilization issues predate the pandemic. Agency offices were built before technological advances allowed their staff to do more work with fewer employees and are not configured in the best way for today’s workplace, he added.
In one instance, GAO found that even if an agency called all of its employees into the office for a day, it would only be two-thirds full. For those reasons, management of federal property has been on the congressional watchdog’s high-risk list for 20 years, according to Marroni. However, agencies have also embraced telework flexibilities at higher rates since the pandemic, having more employees work from home rather than in the office.
Speaking at Thursday’s hearing, Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), the subcommittee’s chair, said taxpayers are paying for the 75 percent of federal office space that remains unused.
“The taxpayer is quite literally paying to keep the lights on even when no one is home,” Perry said in his opening statement. “If this trend is any indication of space usage in leased space, we are wasting literally billions of dollars each year.”
The congressman added, “I have been a firm believer that if agencies aren’t using their space, they got to give it up, got to give it up.”
Empty federal office space also brings environmental costs — considering the energy used to run buildings that result in pollution emissions — as well as dampens the local economy, Marroni said in a podcast accompanying GAO’s report.
“Some of the restaurants are closed, some of the dry cleaners, other basic goods and services aren’t being sold now, because the federal workers aren’t there,” Marroni said.
He added, “Consolidating into fewer buildings would benefit the local economies in these areas because, again, you have more workers to buy things but you also could put some of these buildings if they’re not needed anymore to better uses.”
Meanwhile, more federal employees are going to the office as the federal government’s response to the pandemic winds down.
Also on Thursday, EPA shared its updated work environment plan with staff. The agency’s managers and supervisors will be more often in the office, with in-person work ramping up gradually in the coming months, but rank-and-file staff’s telework and remote work schedules remain unaffected by the plan.
In a video sent to EPA employees, Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe said the agency heard “loud and clear” that they wanted to keep workplace flexibility in place. She said EPA had adapted to a hybrid work model and that many physical processes, such as printing out papers and signing documents, have now gone digital.
“It’s hard to even remember those days sometimes,” McCabe said. “Many of these changes are very positive and have increased productivity, lowered costs and been necessary for EPA to remain competitive with the private sector and other federal agencies.”