When the Government Workspace Is Dirty and Dangerous

It’s tough to find the money and political support to provide public workers with safe, clean places to do their jobs. Tennessee went the privatization route, and the results look promising.
by | September 9, 2013 AT 11:00 AM

I used to work in the James K. Polk State Office Building in Nashville. It’s a tall building -- modernist, glass-walled and perched atop the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. On April 17, 2011, a glass window fell from one of the building’s upper floors. It was the 11th time a window had fallen out since the building had opened in 1981, which wasn’t surprising since many of the windows were separated from their frames by a half-inch or more.

Windows falling from skyscrapers were not the only safety hazards in the state’s facilities. On May 31, 2011, a heavy chunk of concrete with rebar fell off the ceiling of the Andrew Jackson garage and nearly hit a state employee. Those events were hard to ignore, but a review launched by the state’s commissioner of general services found other, less-obvious safety issues. There were exposed electrical panels, out-of-date fire extinguishers, machines without protective guards or insulation, dangerous chemicals improperly stored, fuel leaks, air filters that hadn’t been cleaned or replaced for years, and (my personal favorite) a urinal right next to a building’s main electrical-switch gear, creating a risk of electrocution or fire should a man’s aim not be true.

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In addition to the safety issues, the review found that many of the employee workspaces were depressing places with little or no daylight, worn-out carpet, out-of-date furniture and high-walled workstations that created a claustrophobia-inducing maze and hindered collaboration.

A slide from a 2011 state building-management presentation  
A slide from a 2011 state building-management presentation
Tennessee’s state government is by no means unique. Over the years, I’ve seen audits that touched on these issues, including one that showed a police station in Philadelphia with an emergency exit that led up a staircase to a locked fence. When I was mayor of Kansas City, I would walk through employee work areas on Christmas Eve to thank the city employees there for their service and wish them a merry Christmas. Many of the spaces these folks had to work in were really shabby.

The reasons for this state of affairs in so many government workplaces are pretty obvious. Money is an issue everywhere, and there’s little incentive for either government managers or elected officials to spend much of it on the places where the rank-and-file employees work. Spending money on government workspace is unpopular with the taxpayers, and neglecting it is politically perfectly safe.

What Tennessee is doing about the issue, however, warrants some attention by public managers in other places. Under former general-services commissioner Steve Cates, the state merged two separate agencies, facility management and real-estate-asset management, into the Department of General Services, conducted a comprehensive analysis of the state’s real-estate portfolio, and hired an industry expert to provide comprehensive, integrated real-estate management services. The state essentially privatized the management of much of the its building operations.

In addition to providing state employees and the public with more attractive and safer facilities – including fixing the Polk Building’s windows -- the state expects to realize significant monetary value. Real estate is the state’s second-biggest expense, after personnel. At the time of the review, the state had 479 different facility-management contracts, 107 janitorial contracts, 72 alarm-system contracts, 35 general-maintenance contracts and 381 separate leases. By consolidating many of those contracts, decommissioning some large state buildings, moving state employees out of leased space into refurbished state-owned buildings, and streamlining operations, the state expects to save $94 million over five years.

This stuff is controversial, of course. Privatizing government operations always is, and legitimately so. Every situation has to be examined in terms of whether the service being privatized is part of the government’s core business. Some things are inherently governmental and ought not to be privatized because the risk of abuse is simply too great. And in every privatization arrangement there is significant risk related to the government’s ability to protect its interests in the procurement process and negotiate a sound contract.

On the other hand, a system that results in windows falling out of tall office buildings and urinals next to electrical switches isn’t all that great either. Dirty, dangerous and expensive isn’t exactly a recipe for success.