photo: Adam Stoltz, Associate Director, DEGW Washington DC

By Bryant Rice, Director, DEGW San Francisco

Recently I was privileged to attend a National Executive Summit sponsored by the General Services Administration (GSA) in Washington DC.  This was an opportunity for many senior (and powerful) public officials to share ideas, concerns or hopes about growth, real estate and costs.  It’s an interesting time.  GSA has been working on educating their staff and their client agencies for many years.  I know because DEGW has been there with them, creating tools, documenting processes and completing projects that innovate and lead.  However, these efforts have been the tip of a very large iceberg, and one that moves at the pace of a glacier (pre-climate change).  The majority of government spaces today remain hopelessly traditional, inefficient, ineffective and not expressive of the goals and values of government.  These spaces should reflect the importance of the agency’s mission: (protection, education, security or advancement) as well as the principle tenets of a democracy: fairness, transparency and inclusion.  Does that sound like your typical Federal or State Office Building?

Today we are presented with the perfect storm of a new generation in the workplace, supportive technology, realization of the seriousness of environmental impact and the all to present reminder of an economic downturn.  We are more focused on how we create and use our resources.  The office, as we know it, isn’t looking so good.

This administration has not only seen the wave, they’ve decided it would be good to ride it.  Moreover, they’ve had the insight to create the conditions where people want to understand options, test concepts and most importantly demonstrate results.  An executive order (13514), followed by a presidential memo (6.10.2010) and topped by a congressional mandate (pl 111-292) has got real estate executives searching for answers.  Surf’s up and it’s time to go to the beach

 So why hasn’t this happened sooner? 

As an outsider to “the District”, I can’t help but notice certain profiles, attitudes and even turns of phrase that I don’t observe at home in California.  The Executive Summit did not look like any of my Technology Sector events I attend in Silicon Valley.  People dress nicer in DC.  They are polite and a bit more formal.  Where everything is based on politics, you don’t really talk about politics.  And while the political landscape, and jobs and art may change to some degree every 2 years, there is a slight sense of “business as usual”.  The average age of the federal employee is about 50.  So there is an absence of real change, or at least fast change in DC.  People have security in their jobs, and the government in spite of communications otherwise has continuously grown since they set up house in 1789.

Life within the GSA Portfolio has also changed very little.  The majority of the buildings the government owns were built in the 1960”s and 70”s reflecting the styles and traditional uses of offices at that time.  It was a developer’s market and buildings were designed to accommodate the typical tenant at the time.  This led to the corner offices, oversized board rooms and single space types (universal plans) that modernism seemed to demand.  Since that time, renovations have seemed “cost prohibitive” so these buildings continue to be used inefficiently with some of the most inefficient work-arounds becoming the accustomed, non-challenged norms.  Today, GSA controls 365 million square feet.  Luckily, half of this is leased, giving us a great opportunity to reduce that number while providing superior space and supporting a renewed (and optimistic) vision of the government.

I’m pumped!  So the typical reasons for status quo, such as administrative changes or lack of union buy-in don’t dissuade me.  They make me more eager to present the real, demonstrable benefits of a new way of looking at work, its processes, technologies, and spaces.   I can see no reason why the government, its staff and taxpayers cannot benefit from the advances we’ve seen in the private sector.  The pace, I’ll admit, may kill me.

They say Washington is a different city at night. The long term employees, executives and lobbyists go home to their homes in Bethesda or Arlington.  Dupont Circle is awash in bright, energetic, enthusiastic and idealistic youth. They want to make a difference and believe they can. This energy was still in the air at the Executive Summit the next day.  We’re just figuring out how to tap into it.