12 May 2015

Empty office black hole dogs the Public Service

The great unknown: How many empty work spaces does the Australian Public Service have across the country?

The Commonwealth says it does not know how much empty office space it is paying for, as a review is ordered of the tens of thousands of empty public service desks around Australia.

The last reliable figures, produced five years ago, revealed no "signs of life" at nearly 29,000 desks in government buildings across the nation.

The Finance Department says it cannot say how much empty real estate is being billed to taxpayers each year despite departmental bosses claiming to the Parliament recently that they had the figures at their fingertips.

In the wake of the appearance by Departmental Secretary Jane Halton in March, Finance back-tracked on its claims made to the committee, saying the information it had was incomplete, that reliable data was not available and that the accuracy of what it did know needed to be verified.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann announced on Sunday that Tuesday's Budget would contain a review of office buildings leased by the federal government in a bid to determine exactly how much public service real estate is showing "signs of life".

One agency alone, the Australian Taxation Office, is known to have about 6500 desks sitting empty around the country, while the giant Department of Human Services has been trying to offload large expanses of empty offices it rents in Canberra, and finding no takers.

But the confusion coming from his own department looms as an early stumbling block to Senator Cormann's plans to tackle the issue.

It is five years since Finance was able to provide an accurate picture of empty government offices and it has failed to live up to its pledge in 2011 that it would provide regular reviews to the Parliament and public.

The 2009 PRODAC audit, published a year later, found the Commonwealth had more than 2.9 million square metres of space, in 613 tenancies in 137 locations across Australia.

There were 159,000 "workpoints" but 29,000 of them showed no "signs of life" when walk-through inspections were conducted.

Ms Halton was bullish about her department's knowledge when fronting the Parliament's Public Works Committee on March 20 as she tried to convince the senators and MPs to approve the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars on a new office building for Finance.

Under questioning from Liberal Senator Matt Canavan, the Finance boss assured the committee that her department had a full database of Commonwealth property in every town and city and how much it cost.

But just weeks later, a departmental spokeswoman said that Finance in fact could not produce that information.

"The Australian Government Property Data Collection (PRODAC) data is currently being audited to verify its accuracy in preparation for the next release of audit findings in due course," she said.

Finance pledged in 2011 to produce a full PRODAC audit within two years and then again at regular intervals but has not managed one in the four years since its statement.

But the spokeswoman insisted that "there has been no delay".

"The next iteration of the Australian government office occupancy report will be published as soon as reliable information on occupational density is available," she said,

"With this sort of data it is important to properly quality assure the data and ensure that data is not affected by cyclical or anomalous variations."

"Once this has occurred the next Australian government office occupancy report will be published."