It’s an idea that’s been talked about since Lyndon Johnson was president: What if federal agencies, instead of separating themselves into independent building silos, joined together in one location for maximal interaction and collaboration?
Dan Tangherlini, administrator of the General Services Administration, teased the idea Tuesday to a crowd of industry and government officials at ACT-IAC’s 2014 Executive Leadership Conference, saying “we actually think this idea of the federal office building giving way to the common federal space is an inevitability.”
“The idea was to build this big federal office building and put the agencies together,” Tangherlini said. “It was to make it more efficient for the customer interaction. But it was also so that the agencies could share certain utilities like security, conference rooms and dining facilities. What happened over the ’80s and ’90s is we got away from it. We really focused on the individual agency as a specific, very unique entity that had its own building requirements.”
Really, though, he said most federal buildings don’t differ from one to the next.
“I’ve been in hundreds of federal buildings now, and I’m having a really hard time describing why one is so unique, why it’s so different from that one and they need to be separated,” Tangherlini said.
GSA, in charge of federal real estate, has acted as a sort of model for modern federal offices. At its 1800 F St. headquarters in the District of Columbia, the agency is set up with an open office workspace in which employees for the most part don’t have assigned desks or office units. Staffers instead hotel the spaces when they need them for increased ability to collaborate and the freedom to work where needed throughout the building. As of late, that program has come under scrutiny for security concerns.
Tangherlini said GSA is a major believer in the idea of “liquid” office space and has invited “as many as 20 people from any agency that wants to try the 1800 F [St.] experience to come over and live in the wild with us. We’ll give you laptops, we’ll connect you to your IT system and you can experience it.”
The Johnson-era idea of putting all agencies in one or several buildings would be a massive undertaking. But Tangherlini said federal government could start slow, and he said GSA could be the pilot offering its space.
“We have expansive authorities for out-lease and co-location,” he said. “So the question is if we do that, do we have to do it with us being completely evacuated out of the building? Could we share space? Could there be opportunities for that? We’ve talked to [the Small Business Administration] and [the National Economic Council] about the idea of leveraging federal office space for that purpose.”
The idea of shared office space is a hat-tip to the private sector’s immensely popular idea of co-working space and startup incubators, in which many small companies come together to share a single office, making it more affordable and opening them up for collaboration.
That latter benefit is something that would help federal agencies tremendously, especially in their IT pursuits. Earlier in his discussion, Tangherlini said federal agencies could do a much better job at shared services, using the expertise of other agencies to provide tools instead of trying to recreate the wheel.
“Figure out those services that are utilities, treat them as utilities and find the agencies that deliver them well,” he said. GSA works with several agencies that provide things like financial management because, as Tangherlini said, that’s not the agency’s mission. “GSA’s job isn’t to be a financial manager. Our job is to provide buildings, to provide acquisition and provide technology.”
Agencies sharing office space face many concerns, particularly when they have different security efforts. To that he said they could “push the ones with the certain kind of security requirements together and push the ones that have a real customer focus together. It’s really more of a challenge to be solved rather than a problem that will actually combat us from getting there.”