Why Counting Federal Structures Isn’t as Easy as 1-2-3

Government thumbnail imageThe federal government owns and manages a huge amount of “real property” (property that can’t be moved). GAO designated the management of federal real property as High Risk based largely on challenges agencies face managing buildings. But buildings are only part of the story.

GAO recently reported on how agencies manage structures, which make up over half the government’s real property. What’s a structure? Good question. Well, a structure isn’t a building, but it isn’t open land, either. Structures include roads, dams (like Hoover Dam), and radio towers. Some structures are common across agencies, such as roads and parking garages, while others, such as historic structures or particle accelerators, are specific to agencies’ missions.

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Agencies submit information about their real property to the Federal Real Property Profile database, which the Federal Real Property Council runs and the U.S. General Services Administration manages. According to the database, federal agencies operate about 480,000 structures. Non-military agencies operate 176,000 of those structures.

We found that federal agencies take different approaches to:

  • What a structure is: For example, we found that federal agencies categorized some facilities as structures that were similar to buildings.

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  • How a structure is counted: For example, a radio tower at Washington’s Dulles International Airport is reported as six structures at one site, shown below. On the other hand, the Delta-Mendota Canal’s 117 miles of canal and related components like pumping stations, gates, roads and fencing are reported as a single structure.

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To interact with this graphic, check out the full report.

These different approaches, along with similar variations in how agencies assess the condition of a structure or calculate related costs, result in inconsistencies in data that could:

  • make it hard to use the real property database to help agencies address the challenges of managing federal structures, and
  • make it difficult for decision makers outside the agencies, like Congress, to have confidence in the number and state of federal structures.

We made recommendations to clarify the definition of structures, improve data collection, and help agencies improve the information they submit to the real property database.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact David Wise at wised@gao.gov.
  • Comments on the WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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