July 17, 2006
1. What are public property assets?
Physical properties owned by government at all levels. The term covers immoveable property — real estate — and moveable property, which could be equipment, vehicles, and so on. Also under this umbrella is such infrastructure as roads, utility facilities, water treatment plants, land fields and so on. Managing Government Property Assets mostly considers land and nonresidential real estate.
Urban Institute research on this issue started with a small assignment in 1999. I headed to Bulgaria to help a city mayor with a local government reform project that included managing municipal property. But when I looked at the disorder of municipal property in this city, I knew it wasn't an isolated problem.
Then the World Bank gave Urban Institute some modest funding to research good municipal property management practices internationally. This created a platform for us to expand our technical assistance work because — after that research — we knew what good practices meant. So we started implementing the best in countries transitioning to free markets.
Not long after, the Inter American Development Bank asked us to help Chile's government look at good practices for the federal level. This gave us knowledge of good practices for both municipal and national governments, and both could be transferred to countries where we were providing technical assistance.
2. How does the United States manage these assets compared with other countries?
All countries, including the United States, where asset management reform mostly stalled, do this about equally badly. Most governments — both local and central — don't know what they own. To manage what you own, you need to know what you have.
You could compare Washington, D.C. to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, at least until recently. Neither had records of sufficient quality and both regularly made unsound decisions. In...