VA Real Property: Improved Communication and Performance Measurement Could Improve Asset Management

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What GAO found

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) manages a large capital portfolio to provide health care to registered veterans. The GAO found that VA has faced and continues to face challenges addressing three of the main characteristics identified by GAO of an asset management framework. These are (1) leadership support that provides necessary resources, such as staffing; (2) communication beyond traditional agency boundaries; and (3) continuous assessment and improvement of asset management performance. These features are designed to optimize agency funding and decision making.

  • Staff resources. Regarding leadership that provides the necessary resources, GAO has previously identified staffing issues that have affected VA’s ability to manage its assets and have resulted in consequences such as delayed projects and difficulties in managing projects. VA officials continued to describe staffing issues, such as difficulties in planning and executing projects and limits on the number of projects institutions can undertake. VA officials described their efforts to address these challenges. These efforts include, for example, the development of new staffing models and the establishment of special wage rates for engineers. However, it is too early to determine to what extent these efforts will improve staffing.
  • Communication. Regarding communication beyond traditional agency boundaries, VA has taken steps to improve communication between offices responsible for asset management. These measures include the publication of an asset management guideline which VA officials say would help facilitate such communication. However, GAO found persistent cases of (1) insufficient communication at the start of project development between the local offices and the Office of Construction and Facilities Management and (2) communication between the construction offices and the Office of Information and Technology to ensure that information technology needs are met when bringing facilities online. This lack of communication can be attributed, in part, to a lack of direction from the VA on how and when to communicate. Improving communication between these offices could help avoid unnecessary delays in the development and execution of projects and help VA bring the space online more efficiently.
  • Performance measurement. Regarding the need to agencies to continuously assess performance of their asset management systems and implement the necessary improvements, VA does not have sufficient performance targets and measures. Although it collects information about its facilities and has some broad strategic goals, the agency does not have measurable goals to help assess its asset management and to determine how well this branch is helping VA. to achieve these general strategic objectives, such as a goal of reducing the amount of deferred maintenance. Although VA officials recognized the importance of such metrics, they noted that they found it difficult to develop performance metrics, for reasons such as the difficulty of attributing results to actions in the VA. ‘agency. Nonetheless, previous GAO work indicates the value of doing so. In the absence of such metrics, VA is limited in its ability to determine the extent to which its asset management is helping VA achieve its strategic goals and objectives.

Why GAO did this study

Providing health care to over 9 million registered veterans, VA manages a portfolio that includes 5,625 owned buildings and 1,690 leased buildings as of fiscal 2020. VA has urgent needs associated with these assets , not only to maintain or replace aging facilities, but also to adapt to changing demographics and the needs of veterans.

GAO was asked to review the VA’s management of these real estate (fixed assets). This report examines: (1) VA’s management of its personnel resources for the construction and maintenance of its fixed assets, (2) VA’s communication between offices involved in and supporting the management of fixed assets, and (3) VA’s assessment of its performance in the management of fixed assets. GAO has reviewed VA documentation and previous GAO and other reports on VA capital management. GAO also interviewed heads of VA headquarters offices involved in asset management, VA managers in a non-generalizable selection of eight geographically dispersed VA medical centers, and seven regional offices that managed different types of VA projects. VA Assets, and representatives from four veterans service organizations.

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