GSA, Created to be a Reference

IOP’s leader Willian Bueno visited the US GSA in July 2016, during which time  three meetings with GSA professionals  provided him valuable lessons in public management. This article makes a brief comparison between Brazil and the United States regarding the institutional and legal framework for federal real properties, especially government buildings. This comparison shows how specialization and autonomy are strongly correlated to institutional technical development.

Versão em Português

GSA is an independent agency of the United States government, founded in 1949, in charge of providing “general services” for the federal government. The term “general services” represents all basic services any organization needs to operate, such as office space, office furniture, computers, IT services, transportation, security, maintenance, and so on. GSA categorizes this services in two major groups: building services and acquisition services. This categorization corresponds to agency´s basic structure of Public Building Services (PBS) and Federal Acquisition Services (FAS), which is crucial to specialization in the procurement services.

Before its founding, each US federal agency had its own department in charge of “general services”. Due to the fact that there was no institution in charge of managing general services,  it was difficult to set standards, to uniformize procedures, and to oversee contracts within the federal government. This fragmentation of the general services administration among all federal agencies caused a  lack of efficiency and opened up opportunity for corruption. In order to solve these problems, the US Congress created the General Service Administration – GSA, a specialized technical institution responsible for the management of all general services within the federal government.

The meetings at GSA covered several technical subjects, including procurement procedures, technologies for real estate control, and management. However, this article presents only the most relevant institutional and operational aspects of GSA, especially those that serve as a reference to Brazilian public administration.

Independent Agency

The fact that the US Congress assigned the administration of general services to an independent agency is one of the most relevant aspects of GSA. This was the founding principle that allowed  GSA to develop as a reputable technical institution. The main advantages of this organizational structure are institutional stability and regulatory power.

In regards to institutional stability, it is important to clarify first the fact that GSA was created by federal law from Congress, which makes GSA a permanent state agency. This institutional aspect takes away the incumbent government’s power to modify or extinguish it. Secondly,  independence is crucial for mitigating external influences, such as political pressure and/or mismanagement. Both aspects provide the stability needed for institutional technical development in the long run.

In regards to regulatory power, Congress delegated the power to regulate activities related to its institutional role to GSA. For example, if GSA plans to implement a new policy regarding procurement of general services, it will not need to rely on Congress approval. This regulatory power provides GSA more capability for innovation, to the point of becoming an international reference in its field.

Service Oriented

One of GSA’s main goals is to effectively provide basic services to other federal agencies so they can concentrate on their core businesses. GSA treats other federal agencies as “customers”. As with any business relationship, the customer must pay for services received. As an example of how it works, let us consider the IRS. In order to properly conduct its duties, tax collection, the IRS needs office space, computers, security services, IT services, and other general services. The IRS and GSA would establish an agreement so that GSA provides general services to the IRS, with price corresponding to market value.

It is interesting that even if GSA provides office space in a building owned by the federal government, the IRS still has to pay rent, which is also calculated according to market value. It is also important to highlight the fact that GSA is the general service provider for agencies from all state branches: executive, legislative and judiciary. This means that even the Supreme Court must hire GSA when it decides to acquire, for example, a new courthouse building. Like any other customer, it will have to pay the cost of the construction, the rent to occupy the building, and all the operation and maintenance services hired from GSA. The rent collected goes into the Federal Building Fund (FBF), which is administered by GSA. FBF is a compelling case for financial sustainability, as it funds PBS and new federal agencies. This GSA’s unique business model offers a good mechanism of control for public budgeting. This makes GSA refrain from spending more than it collects, and customers will think twice before deciding to expand their office space into, for example,  the middle of Manhattan.

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GSA recently acquired a new courthouse (United States Courthouse – Brooklyn, New York). Despite the fact that it is a property owned by the US federal government, the Judiciary must pay market-value rent, which goes into a fund GSA administers.

A Reference to Other Agencies

In regards to office space management, GSA works to be a complete model to other public agencies. Quality office space management is one of GSA’s main concerns. When it comes to efficiency, even minor details are relevant. For example, water fountains are equipped with quick bottle fillers, to discourage use of plastic glasses. Accordingly, one can say that GSA preaches what it teaches.  Here are a few examples of the best space occupation practices that GSA adopts:

  • There are no walls within the office space, except for meeting rooms. The layout is basically  two areas: one area for reserved desks and other area for non reserved desks. It eliminates cost for layout changes because it will not need to turn down walls. Layout change will only require update on desk status, from assigned to non assigned and vice-versa.
  • Paper use is discouraged. Accordingly, desks don’t have drawers to disincentive paper use.
  • No landline phones. Everyone must use cellphone or their computers with headsets.
  • No coffee/water servers. GSA discourages the use of labor force on non essential activities.
  • Work from home programs. Besides reducing government footprint, it contributes to public policies regarding greenhouse gas emission and traffic congestion.
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At GSA’s office space, there are no walls, except for the meeting rooms. Desks do not have drawers to desincentive paper use.

In order to meet customer demand for quality and, at the same time, offer the highest value for the money, GSA is constantly working to innovate, such as the following:

  • Implementation of new procurement procedures such as design-build and design-build-bridge, which are more efficient depending on the type of the acquisition.
  • BIM technology for managing acquisition and maintenance of federal real properties. (We recommend reading the IOP article BIM, a modelagem da informação da construção to learn more about the benefits of BIM). Despite the fact that technology development is not part of its core business, GSA has been investing in the development of BIM technology, due to its importance for real estate management.

Federal real property management: USA x Brazil

In the Brazilian federal government, there is an institution with similar duties. It is the Secretariat of Federal Real Estate or Secretaria do Patrimônio da União (SPU) that conducts similar services. One could even say that SPU and GSA are “sister institutions”. Like GSA, SPU is also in charge of managing federal real estate. Despite the fact that both institutions have similar duties, the institutional and legal framework under which GSA and SPU operate are quite different.

While GSA is an independent agency, SPU is controlled solely by the executive branch. Also, SPU´s roles and main activities may change upon the incumbent government political needs.  Therefore, SPU doesn’t have the same level of institutional stability, which make it hard to build technical expertise in the long run.

While GSA can make policies with federal law power, SPU can not. As a result, SPU must rely on congressional approval before adopting new bidding or procuring procedures. As an example, the Brazilian Congress is currently debating new policies related to design-build  procurement procedures, which can only be implemented after congressional approval. At GSA, the process of developing new policies is more logical. New procedures are tested in pilot projects first. Once proven effective, GSA turns it into policy with the power of federal law. In the case of SPU, it must wait on Congress to approve prior to adoption, which creates obstacles for institutional innovation.

While GSA works with a broader concept for “federal property management”, SPU works with a more limited concept. At GSA this concept involves all general services. At SPU, this concept is mostly related to registering information about each property. On other words, in Brazil, each agency manages its own “general services”. This means that “general services administration” is fragmented among all other agencies (Not unlike the role of the GSA before 1949). Such fragmentation makes it difficult to develop specialization in this field, which has a negative impact on public administration efficiency.

Take Away Lessons

Specialization and autonomy are crucial for institutional technical development, and GSA is a perfect example. In Brazil, there are a few other examples that correlate specialization and autonomy in building reputable technical institutions, such as the Central Bank, the Court of Audit, the Public Prosecution, and the Federal Police.

On the other hand, Brazilian public administration is way behind when it comes to “general service administration”. One key step towards more efficiency would be moving this role from a fragmented to a decentralized structure, similar to how GSA was established. There are several benefits in assigning this role (general service administration) to an independent technical agency. One major benefits is the fact that specialization and autonomy create the necessary environment to build expertise in performing more efficiently.

Going Beyond…

We cannot end this article without mentioning the benefits that specialization and autonomy could bring to infrastructure. Selecting the best project and the most capable company to execute the project is crucial for successful infrastructure implementation. This is a complex technical function that takes time and effort to develop the proper expertise. For this reason, IOP defends that this specific function (selection of the project and the company to execute it) should be  assigned to a technical independent agency. However, this will  be a topic for our next articles.


Acknowledgments

I would like to thank the GSA team for sharing valuable information, which will greatly contribute to make the Brazilian public administration more efficient.

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Frank Santella – Regional Commissioner, PBS Northeast & Caribbean Region
Darren Gomez – Acting Deputy Regional Commissioner
Maureen Lennon – Director, Acquisition Management Division
David McDonald – Director, Design and Construction Division
Crofton Whitefield – Deputy Director, Portfolio
Stephen Monkewicz – Zonal Manager, National Office of Leasing
Eric Cook – Regional Chief Architect , Public Buildings Service
Brian Burns – Branch Chief, Acquisition Management Division
Rich Favuzzi – Branch Chief, Leasing Division
Ilana Helmann – National BIM Program Expert, GSA Office of Public Buildings IT Services
Charles Matta – Deputy Associate CIO, Public Buildings IT Services


The Author:

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Willian Bueno, IOP’s President, is an Infrastructure Analyst of the Ministry of Planning and is currently in office at the Secretariat of Federal Real Estate as Head of the Department of  Real Property Inspection and Control. He is currently enrolled in the Master’s Program in Public Administration of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University where he is working on his academic project related to infrastructure public policies.

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