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8 ways to boost state and local government real estate performance

December 01, 2017
businessman talking to colleagues sitting in circle in empty office

A new era has begun in state and local government real estate—and it’s leaner and more infused with a sense of urgency than ever before. Faced with looming pension liabilities, possible federal funding cuts and potential negative press coverage related to real estate mismanagement, government executives—many with private sector experience—are flipping the script. Leaders are finding new ways for buildings to serve constituents more effectively, while achieving significant cost reductions that help avoid cutting a state’s mission-critical services or staff. They are turning a liability and cost center into an opportunity to streamline and serve.

While the path to progress is different for every state and community, here are eight real estate best practices forward-looking state and local governments are often using to help solve their most profound and urgent challenges.

1 Enlist champions for change

When real estate changes, it can feel to those impacted like “everything is changing.” Thoughtful change management can make transformational activities more welcome within the organization. With the right plan and advocacy program in place, it will be easier to realize campaigns that improve occupancy strategies, advance capital planning, implement technology solutions and shape offices that attract and retain valued employees. The process can be viewed as an opportunity, but many government employees are conditioned to fear change. You or your colleagues may have seen real estate mismanaged in the past, experienced the bad press, and fear unemployment, undesirable relocation, or worse.

To dissuade people of their fears of change, it’s critical to be strategic about gathering support for your plan before rolling it out in full. In your role as a change agent, you should act early to enlist passionate advocates within the government for your initiative. Depending on your organization, those influencers could be the governor, an influential mayor, a chief of staff, agency head or other people with significant persuasive appeal. These powerful and knowledgeable individuals can help advance the changes you propose, and also help you anticipate obstacles along the way.

By bringing insights to the table that can help improve service to constituents or help solve budget challenges, the real estate function becomes more than a cost center. Instead, it contributes meaningfully to the executive agenda.

Avoid bad press and advance-manage employee and constituent concerns by putting your passionate advocates in place via a thoughtful and proactive change management plan. Ideally, your plan will include clear, consistent communications that address stakeholder concerns before, during and after the proposed change.

The most effective starting point is to document a strong business case for change and secure executive sponsorship at the top, including the governor and key stakeholders in the executive and legislative branches.

With the advocacy of these leaders, your plans will stand a better chance of winning the endorsement of the state legislature, the media and the general public.     

2 Use real estate information to earn a seat at the strategic planning table 

Big Data offers big potential to governments—for cost savings, improved service and occupancy insights. You can transform your real estate information into valuable recommendations for top elected officials, administrators and the public about how facilities are being used, how efficiently they operate, and to identify potential liabilities and opportunities in advance.  

With the advocacy of these leaders, your plans will stand a better chance of winning the endorsement of the state legislature, the media and the general public.

Additionally, centralized information can bring clarity to a complex portfolio of multiple sites, building types and oversight. For many governments, seeing the whole picture is an enormous challenge because facilities may be centrally owned and managed or leased by individual agencies and departments. A centralized data management system can reveal insights that save money and suggest new ways to serve constituents, as well as inform traditional buy, sell, lease and occupancy decisions. Predictive analytics can predict future scenarios, such as correlating real estate needs with projected headcount growth or reductions resulting from public policy initiatives.

Determining where different departments and employees will be most productive and collaborative is another common challenge. Big Data insights can reveal the potential advantage of colocating agencies that serve the same constituents or operations. For instance, rather than separating procurement and accounts payable on two different floors or even two different buildings, why not place these functions more closely together? For example, one particular state used restacking and other datadriven strategies to eliminate more than one million square feet of vacant and under-utilized space—without compromising the employee workplace experience or undermining productivity.

3 Clarify and unify real estate portfolio management 

For many governments, real estate management and usage is managed by multiple entities, or may be best described as “all over the place.” Some state and local leaders are streamlining portfolio management by centralizing some or all aspects of it.

Centralized management does not always make sense. For example, state colleges and universities have specialized facilities and usage hours, requiring facility management capabilities that are different from those needed for an office-based government agency. However, aggregating real estate information across your entire jurisdiction allows you to negotiate volume discounts for supplies; offer consistent benchmarking guidance and standards to educational institutions and agencies—without removing agency or institutional autonomy; and provide a consistent level of service and quality to all end-users.

One way centralized management can directly impact performance is benchmarking. By comparing your portfolio data with that of other governments and private sector organizations, you can better position your real estate assets while achieving significant cost savings. Benchmarking can also help you communicate opportunities and results achieved, as you engage with your many stakeholders.

For instance, the average office size in private-sector white-collar industries has shrunk from between 500 and 700 square feet in the 1970s to about 150 square feet today. How do your office standards compare? Through better alignment of functions and facilities, you can reap the cost reduction and efficiency of higher occupancy density. 

By comparing your portfolio data with that of other governments and private sector organizations, you can better position your real estate assets while achieving significant cost savings.

Lease administration is another rewarding, but challenging, area where centralization can move the needle for government real estate organizations. Many governmentscontinue to manage leases with spreadsheets.

And those that have invested in lease administration technology may find it under-utilized if employees lack experience or training resources. Consider all your options before investing in a system; lease administration systems typically require resource-intensive implementation of various modules, which is one reason some agencies have begun to use third-party lease administration services.

In addition to centralizing lease data, lease administration services proactively identify opportunities to renegotiate lease terms and rental rates, ensure that key dates are not missed and reveal timely opportunities to consolidate or dispose of underused assets.

4 Prioritize real estate user 4 satisfaction and communication

Unappealing and poorly maintained government offices are a big downside when a government is seeking to attract and retain millennial workers—and they don’t delight constituents, either. A government’s workers and visitors should be treated like their customers as well. Focusing on employees and constituents can infuse a sense of purpose throughout real estate decision-making, from interior office build-outs, to lease versus sale decisions.

One place to start is by measuring end-user satisfaction with surveys and metrics—because you can only manage what you measure. Establish key metrics, such as response time for service requests, task completion or satisfaction with the workspace, to drive continuous improvement in service.

Focusing on employees and constituents can infuse a sense of purpose throughout real estate decisionmaking, from interior office build-outs, to lease versus sale decisions.

For example, one state used surveys to determine needs, and then assessed its responsiveness to requests for services and repairs and concluded that some buildings were higher priority than others. At the state capitol the facilities team established the key performance indicator (KPI) of responding to service requests in 30 minutes or less. In contrast, the facilities team established a less-ambitious KPI of responding to requests within two working days at less-critical facilities in more remote locations.

Some onsite teams were transformed into mobile engineering units that can address building issues dynamically using an online work order system with on-the-go access. Rather than being dedicated to a single facility that may not actually need a full-time resource, the mobile team can respond as quickly as a full-time resource while freeing up budget that can be invested in highly trained team members able to solve a broad range of technical problems—resulting in fewer service calls. The mobile team also avoids the expensive service call charges from contractors having to travel from the closest city.

5 Tackle deferred maintenance and improve the capital planning process

If your real estate portfolio is like most others in the public sector, deferred maintenance is a painful fact of life that only becomes more costly over time. To avoid ballooning deferred maintenance costs amidst budgeting pressures and competing priorities, some state and local agencies are adopting a more strategic approach to capital planning that includes both facilities assessments and a consistent year-over-year method for assessing capital projects.

Facilities assessments are becoming more common, as governments seek to identify potential capital liabilities at all or some of their owned facilities. A typical assessment covers all aspects of a facility and provides estimated costs for remediation projects along with an overall score for the facility’s condition. In aggregate, the facility assessments provide a clear picture of maintenance requirements and suggest a roadmap for funding near- and long-term priority capital projects. Benefits also include the ability to anticipate possible future equipment failures, thus avoiding expensive emergency repair costs, and improved employee and visitor satisfaction from well-maintained facilities.

Facilities assessments also identify regulatory, health and life safety issues that must be prioritized. Thus, the assessment can help a state or local government stay “in business” and avoid federal regulatory fines and lawsuits related to noncompliance—as well as the negative media coverage that usually results in such cases.

In aggregate, the facility assessments provide a clear picture of maintenance requirements and suggest a roadmap for funding near- and long-term priority capital projects.

6 Align contract goals with service provider compensation

Vendor contracts can be an enormous pain point with employees, constituents and the media, spurring talk of mass layoffs, or government waste on “expensive consultants.” One way governments are increasing transparency, driving cost savings and keeping real estate service providers aligned with taxpayer goals is by aligning service provider compensation with the interests of the government and its constituents.

Paying for performance, typically via a fee-at-risk service contract focused on specified goals, ensures that the goals of the service provider and the client organization are aligned. The key is for the client and service provider to jointly identify achievable outcomes and key performance indicators (KPIs), defined in a contract that stipulates base fees plus fees-at-risk for achieving target goals. 

Paying for performance, typically via a fee-at-risk service contract focused on specified goals, ensures that the goals of the service provider and the client organization are aligned. 

With this structure, the service provider is assured payment for baseline work, while being incentivized to achieve specific outcomes. Examples of goals include reducing total portfolio costs by 5 percent in year one and 10 percent by the end of year two, reducing annual building energy spend by 5 percent or responding to 95 percent of state capitol building service requests within 30 minutes. These goals lend themselves easily to metrics and KPIs to be tracked over the life of the contract.

KPIs also can include people-focused outcomes. In many agreements, for example, it is not unusual for a client to stipulate that its service provider hire and retain a high proportion of formerly in-house employees, providing those employees with career opportunities and ongoing training not typically available within a government organization with a broader mission to accomplish. People-focused KPIs ensure that “the right people land in the right seat on the right bus,” during any transition.

7 Tap investor capital using P3s to finance ambitious projects

When public sector budgets are tight, the private sector can be tapped for funding, via public-private partnerships (P3s). Used successfully for decades for infrastructure and highway development, P3s are gaining popularity with state and local agencies to finance real estate projects. When thoughtfully executed, a P3 can reduce the need for public debt while also supporting a valuable community project, boosting economic growth and creating local jobs. P3s also can provide more efficient project delivery than can be achieved through typical bureaucratic government procurement processes. 

When thoughtfully executed, a P3 can reduce the need for public debt while also supporting a valuable community project, boosting economic growth and creating local jobs.

More than 30 states have modernized their governance laws to allow broader use of P3s. Florida, for example, expanded its P3 procurement law to include not just state transportation projects, but also seaports and rail structures; parking garages; oil and gas pipelines; and recreation, medical, cultural and sports facilities, among other “qualifying projects.”

States and cities are using P3s for ambitious economic revitalization projects, with promising results. Chattanooga, Tennessee, created a downtown destination through strategic public and private redevelopment investments for a renovated museum along with new civic and commercial space. Similarly, public and private partners are collaborating in a major housing/ hotel complex development in Columbus, Ohio.

Other public sector entities, particularly airports and universities, are also using P3s. In New York, a private investor group is undertaking a $3.6 billion redevelopment project at LaGuardia Airport with Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Likewise, in a recent agreement, California State University Channel Islands completed one of the largest P3 property modernizations to date. Anticipating a threefold increase in student enrollment, the university sold a property comprising a 328-unit apartment building, more than 29,000 square feet of retail space and 58 units of student housing to a private developer for $81 million, while retaining ownership of the underlying land. The university is also leasing an adjacent 32-acre site to the developer for additional housing development.

8 Establish a strong governance program

Whatever your real estate initiative may be, a strong governance program is essential. Just as in a hockey game, the governance program will help you “skate to where the puck will be.”

The governance program will ensure that established goals are consistently monitored, and that unexpected obstacles are proactively addressed. Also critical, a governance program provides key decision-makers with a standing opportunity for ensuring that the project supports efficient operations and continuous innovation.

The governance program typically includes regular meetings and reporting mechanisms. For instance, one particular state conducts regular meetings with its vendor team leaders. In quarterly meetings with senior government decision-makers, the vendors’ senior managers provide high-level insights into government real estate trends.

A new era has begun in state and local government real estate—and it’s leaner and more infused with a sense of urgency than ever before.

State and local government agencies from coast to coast are taking a fresh look at their real estate portfolios to uncover new opportunities for efficiency. Rising to meet the challenges of budget cuts and lack of new funding, they are finding ways to capture funding through public private partnerships, and realizing new ideas for a more effective and efficient real estate portfolio.

Regardless of whether you seek to centralize and standardize real estate management, restack facilities, improve data management and reporting, or rethink how real estate services are delivered, it’s important to imagine the path toward change. Consider whom you need to enlist as fellow change agents, and the business case you will use.

Working with passionate advocates recruited within the organization, even the most pressured organizations are finding ways to do more with less. In this way, you can shape a government real estate portfolio that supports your constituents and employees better than ever before. 

 

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