Today I had the opportunity to testify at a remote field hearing of the House Committee on Natural Resources' Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources regarding federal geospatial spending, duplication and land inventory management. Two proposed bills in particular—H.R. 1620 ("Federal Land Asset Inventory Reform Act of 2011") and H.R. 4233 ("Map it Once, Use It Many Times Act")—were the focus, and together they would be an important step towards developing a central, federal real property inventory and eliminating massive duplication in various agencies' mapping and geospatial data collection and use.
Here's an excerpt of my testimony:
Managing real property can often be considered a mundane chore in the public sector. Each government agency often has its own monitoring and tracking methods, which are often not compatible or interoperable with other agencies, leading to a lack of standardized reporting methods at agencies and departments. Without the ability to know what government agencies own, it becomes very difficult to manage those assets in the most cost-effective and efficient ways.
In June 2010, Reason Foundation published a report (“Knowing What You Own: An Efficient Government How-To Guide for Managing Federal Property Inventories,” available at: reason.org/studies/show/what-the-federal-government-owns) outlining the case for a federal real property inventory that is a central record of government-owned land and assets and an important component of efficient property management. In that report we assert that government initiatives to develop an adequate portfolio management system for publicly owned real estate are a sensible step towards improved asset management and public accountability and should be given serious consideration.
Unfortunately, when it comes to knowing what it owns, the federal government is lacking. The absence of a robust real property inventory presents a major challenge for right-sizing the federal property portfolio and causes higher than necessary operating costs and maintenance responsibilities.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has long noted deficiencies in federal real property management. For example, a 2002 GAO report found that the international inventory of federal real property “contained data that were unreliable and of limited usefulness. Therefore decision-makers, such as Congress and the OMB, do not have access to quality data on what real property assets the government owns, their value, how efficiently assets are being used and what the overall costs are involved in preserving, protecting and investing in them.”
The full testimony is here. I go on to discuss how state governments are stepping up on this issue, including Georgia, Virginia and Oklahoma. They are discovering that developing centralized real property inventories offer a range of benefits:
- A comprehensive and current list of land and assets would allow the government to assess whether public property is being used and maintained in the most efficient manner possible.
- Inventories serve as a tool to assess the potential value of divesting underutilized or unnecessary land or assets, which can generate revenues for government and lower maintenance and operations costs.
- Selling or leasing assets to the private sector can expand the tax base and encourage economic growth.
- Inventories can potentially help lower lease and maintenance costs through space consolidation and more efficient utilization.
- Inventory information helps governments plan with more precision, improves efficiency and cost effectiveness and increases officials’ ability to monitor the use of taxpayer money.
Additionally, the two pieces of proposed legislation explicitly encourage partnering with private sector firms to acquire commercially available geospatial services, as opposed to doing such work in-house. Not only is there a robust private sector marketplace that can support government's needs in this sector, but it also makes little sense for governments to provide duplicative services that the private sector is already efficiently providing.
As I conclude in my testimony, this is an important issue in these challenging economic times:
Considering the nation’s ongoing economic challenges, the government should take proactive steps to maximize the value of its resources, ensure efficient management and enable private sector economic growth through asset divestiture. Real property management is not a partisan issue, nor is it an issue of spending priorities. It is an issue of good governance and fiscal responsibility.
For more on this issue, see:
- Reason Foundation's 2010 study by Anthony Randazzo and John Palatiello outlining the case for a federal real property inventory
- My March 2012 blog post on privatizing geospatial activities to make state governments more efficient.
- Reason's 2004 report by John Palatiello, "What's in the Government's Attic?"