Cabinet Office-led efforts to make central government property more efficient and cost effective are at risk of being undermined by a combination of poor data and pandemic-driven changes to working patterns, according to the National Audit Office.
The public-spending watchdog said government has launched 11 programmes aimed at boosting the value-for-money and environmental performance of its departmental property holdings, and shrank the size of its “general-purpose” building portfolio by 6% between 2017 and 2020.
But it has flagged a list of challenges facing efforts to utilise existing stock to its best effect and unlock savings.
It said the Office of Government Property, which sits in the Cabinet Office and sets the strategic direction for the management of government property, does not have comprehensive, real-time information on how central government property is distributed around the country.
The Managing Central Government Property report said the OGP also lacks in-depth data on office occupancy following the Covid-19 pandemic and the flexible-working arrangements that have since become widespread.
The report said that the OGP – which is responsible for the Places for Growth Programme to relocate 22,000 civil service jobs away from the capital by 2030 – started collecting data on the operating cost, value and size of all central government buildings in 2020-21.
But the NAO cautioned: “It collects only high-level data from the organisations that have responsibility for managing property assets and relies on them to hold more detailed information.”
The report said the Government Property Agency, which sets and implements property strategy for the government’s offices and warehouses, is piloting ways of measuring occupancy of the offices it manages. It said the GPA has only limited information about those properties still held by departments.
“A recent review of eight departments by the Government Internal Audit Agency found that three departments had data on the condition of all their property and five departments had no data on the condition of at least one-quarter of their property,” the report said.
The NAO said the Cabinet Office’s attempts to collect more and better-quality data about central government’s property portfolio – 136,000 buildings with a combined value of £158bn in 2020-21 – are being “hampered” by the late delivery of the new “InSite” database.
“The InSite database, originally planned for 2021, has been delayed,” the NAO said. “The contractor did not complete the project to the original or extended timescales. In the meantime, the OGP is relying on manual collection of aggregate data for its annual State of the Estate report.”
The NAO said the OGP has estimated that its data-collection remit will expand from around 5,000 property assets to “potentially more than 100,000 assets”. It said that as some departments do not collect all the data required, obtaining the information will be “a long-term endeavour”.
It said that without accurate workforce planning data on staff numbers and their location from departments, it is difficult for the GPA to maximise efficiencies when planning and implementing departmental relocations.
The watchdog called on the GPA and the OGP to work with departments to “address data problems urgently” and take evidence-based decisions.
“Developing a more cohesive view, supported by robust data, will help government deliver efficiencies, understand what works to improve efficiency and lead to a better managed estate so as to deliver improved value for money,” it said.
The NAO said the GPA and OGP need to assess whether the estimated benefits from consolidating government property, and from the hubs programme, remain realistic.
“If not, the GPA should re-baseline the benefits estimate for both these programmes,” it said.
A government spokesperson said the NAO report was based on the 2018 Government Estate Strategy, and that a new government property strategy would be published later this year.
“We continue to save billions of pounds of taxpayers money through the 2018 Government Estate Strategy, making the most efficient and cost-effective use of government property,” they said.
“As the NAO report highlights, good progress has been made on improving the scale and quality of property data which is available centrally.
“There is still work to do, but we remain confident the necessary building blocks are in place to continue delivering our ambitious property strategy.”
This story was updated at 16:15 on 15 July 2022 to include a government response