Op-Ed: Taxpayers will win if Congress helps us right-size government office space

By Robin Carnahan, Opinion Contributor - Originally published on The Hill

Good landlords want their buildings to function well and their tenants to have the right space to meet their needs. It’s that simple. Right now, the federal government’s landlord — the General Services Administration, which I lead — faces a unique moment related to both of those roles. 

Meeting this moment requires transforming many federal facilities into modern and flexible workplaces. The potential payoff is big: more productive and empowered federal employees, more long-term savings for taxpayers, and more economic growth in communities.

Today, with half of the leases GSA manages set to expire over the next five years, there has never been a better time to invest in and consolidate agencies into facilities the government owns, saving taxpayers billions of dollars.

It will take smart decisions, strategic alignment and collaboration between Congress and the administration to seize this opportunity. President Biden’s budget provides a sensible roadmap to move forward.

As a first step, the budget calls on Congress to let GSA use all of the rent that agencies pay to GSA’s Federal Buildings Fund for building maintenance, repair, and construction. The fund was established by Congress in 1972 to do just that, and it worked that way for almost 40 years. But over the last 13 years, Congress has prevented those funds from being spent on their intended use, instead taking about $1 billion each year to offset non-building-related programs. 

This untenable situation has led to deferred maintenance on hundreds of properties, delaying smart, proactive measures that could have prevented major breakdowns and hundreds of millions of dollars in cost escalations. Congress can fix this, ensuring that collections from agencies only support their intended use while preserving their own discretion on what projects to fund. 

The fiscal 2025 budget proposes that fix and also includes a $425 million optimization fund that will provide the upfront investments GSA needs to help relocate agencies and optimize the federal footprint. This proactive approach to modernization is the key to consolidating agency spaces and selling off or repurposing facilities that the government no longer needs, but which could be put to good use by state or local governments or the private sector. 

Those buildings must also be transformed into modern, flexible workspaces that integrate technology and reflect how agency missions are executed today.

That’s why GSA partnered with industry to set up a workplace innovation lab that shows what’s possible. Thousands of federal employees have already tested the lab’s spaces and provided valuable feedback. 

That’s also why our in-house experts now offer technology tools to help agencies easily explore different workspace options and configurations that adapt to their evolving telework scenarios and specific mission needs. 

Together, these actions and resources will help federal employees deliver services to the American people more effectively and efficiently than ever.

Finally, we are committed to working closely with communities to transfer properties to local stewards in ways that support revitalization and economic development. 

Here in Washington, we know that repurposing underused property has an outsize impact. This has included the redevelopment of the former Cotton Annex on the Southeast Waterfront, the West Heating Plant in Georgetown, and the National Park Seminary in Silver Spring. More opportunities lie ahead to put underused federal buildings to new uses — everything from condos to housing for people experiencing homelessness, to technical centers to municipal buildings, and more.

It’s never been a more exciting or challenging time to be one of the country’s largest stewards of government space. Meeting this moment can be a win for communities, taxpayers, and federal workers, but it will take serious collaboration, commitment, and upfront investment to make it happen. We’re ready to get to work.