Courts, GSA Collaborate to Improve Service, Cut Costs
The federal courts and the General Services Administration are moving forward with an “unprecedented collaboration” to improve property management services, in some cases in a more cost-efficient manner.
Over the past year, under the leadership of the Judicial Conference Space and Facilities Committee and the Commissioner of GSA’s Public Buildings Service, Judiciary and GSA experts have jointly examined such issues as how rent is assessed, how construction projects are managed, how buildings are maintained, and how utilities and other building operations are charged.
A joint Judiciary-GSA statement praised the new collaboration, called the Service Validation Initiative.
“We believe this initiative has already changed the relationship between the Judiciary and GSA for the better,” wrote Judge D. Brooks Smith, chair of the Judiciary’s Space and Facilities Committee; James C. Duff, Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts; and Norman Dong, Commissioner of GSA’s Public Buildings Service. “Our goal, quite simply, is to create a shared culture of continuous improvement which represents the best of what government can be.”
The key focus areas were identified in a 2014 survey of chief judges, conducted by Chief Judge Carol Bagley Amon, of the Eastern District of New York, in coordination with the Judiciary’s Space and Facilities Committee. While some judges praised GSA’s performance, many cited broad concerns.
At the Judiciary’s request, teams of Judiciary and GSA staff studied the thorniest issues, and in 2015, they published their joint recommendations. GSA has begun employing a similar collaborative model with other federal agencies.
“This has been absolutely transformative,” said Melanie Gilbert, chief of the Facilities and Security Office for the Administrative Office. “GSA’s national leadership has been extremely responsive to our concerns, and we have learned that by collaborating and encouraging more transparent communication between the Judiciary and GSA staff, real change is possible.”
Gilbert said improved property management is a critical second prong to the courts’ campaign to contain the Judiciary’s $1 billion annual rent bill. She said court leaders needed assurance that space cuts would be accompanied by service improvements and consistent, transparent billing.
“This has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done with the Judiciary,” said John Domurad, chief deputy clerk of the Northern District of New York, who co-chaired two of the five study teams. “Our counterparts in GSA have been some of the best and most dedicated professionals I’ve dealt with anywhere. This is a real opportunity for the courts to better manage our space.”
A series of national training workshops began in San Francisco in January and will end in Philadelphia in August. The workshops are teaching GSA and court staff how to apply the new property policies consistently in all regions.
In addition, a new national appeals process will enable court tenants to seek expedited review of many regional GSA decisions. That is expected to reduce disparities among courts and ease frustrations between GSA and court staff.
The following are examples of early service improvements:
Building appraisals and space classification. GSA-court teams quickly identified one feature common in courthouses but rare elsewhere in government: many courtrooms are two stories tall, and cost less to operate than two comparable floors of offices. The GSA reduced its rate for such spaces, cutting millions in national rent costs this year, and every year going forward.
Overtime utilities and energy savings. Many courts suspected they were overpaying for utilities, including when court cases ran late, but billing information was hard to decipher.
GSA has set up online tools that show how to read and evaluate bills, and created an appeal process, said Clifford A. Harlan, Ninth Circuit Assistant Circuit Executive for Space and Facilities. “GSA has been sharing information and been much more open to dialogue,” Harlan said. “I think courts should save a considerable amount of money.”
Project development. David Carlson, Fifth Circuit architect/ project manager, said GSA project managers often lack an understanding of court operations, while court staff may lack experience with design and construction. New tools and training have been developed to bridge that gap, guiding GSA and court project teams from initial planning to project closeout.
The new procedures should reduce costly errors in project planning, cost estimating, on-site supervision and billing. “Construction problems often require a significant amount of time, cost, and effort to fix,” Carlson said. “We hope the products of the Service Validation Initiative will greatly minimize that burden on GSA and the courts.”
Building Management. One of the most challenging issues was that of building operations and maintenance. Ed Friedland, district executive for the Southern District of New York, said the building management team identified several critical areas.
GSA and court staff agreed that courthouses with five or more resident judges need an on-site GSA building manager for all core operating hours, and comprehensive contact information for when managers are not available. GSA agreed to specific time limits for responding to building problems. Finally, both sides agreed that building managers and court officials must meet regularly.
“We certainly put all the issues on the table,” Friedland said. “I have to tell you, GSA stepped up to the plate and exceeded our expectations. This definitely reenergized both sides. As one colleague said, it was like hitting a reset button.”
Going forward, Friedland said, court executives are being asked to respond to an online survey about building services, adding that future progress will be measured in part by ongoing annual surveys.
Beyond concrete service changes, Judiciary officials said the initiative has built mutual understanding and trust.
“Together, we have developed a shared, detailed understanding on billing, maintenance and other issues that affect court operations and inflate costs,” Gilbert said. “With GSA’s help, the federal courts are winners, and so is the American taxpayer.”