$92 million

Apparently the new story making the rounds among the conservative blogosphere is that a government watchdog group has discovered that the EPA has spent $92,000,000 on furniture.

Wow, that sounds like a truly ridiculous amount of money to spend on furniture.  The EPA has about 17,000 employees, that’s $5,411 a head!

The story wound up at The Washington Times, which reported:

And the EPA doesn’t buy just any old office furniture. Most of the agency’s contracts are with Michigan-based retailer Herman Miller Inc. According to the contracts, the EPA spent $48.4 million on furnishings from the retailer known for its high-end, modern furniture designs.

Just one of Herman Miller’s “Aeron” office chairs retails for nearly $730 on the store’s website. The EPA has spent tens of thousands of dollars to purchase and install those types of chairs in its offices.

“While private companies and citizens face more and more hardship from government regulation, the EPA literally sits in the easy chair,” said Adam Andrzejewski, founder of OpenTheBooks.com. “The EPA can’t relate to the financial hardships regular Americans face. It’s Herman Miller furniture for the bureaucrats, but Ikea for the taxpayers.”

Hm.  This story triggered some of my red flag warnings.  Which ones?

(1) The story reports $92 million, but buries the detail that this is over a period of 10 years.  That might be telling, particularly if you’re moving facilities somewhere in the middle of that ten year period, where you may have to pay once to buy furniture and then pay to move it somewhere else.  Also, the $92 million figure isn’t broken down by expense type, so we don’t know how much of the $92 million was actually spent on *furnishings*.  Is it just the $48.4 million to Herman Miller?  If it is, that’s a furniture budget of about $2,850 per head.  Well, that’s… not crazy.    The story, for example, quotes carpet cleaning as one of the expenses, so it’s entirely possible this number includes basic maintenance tasks… and over a decade, that can be a considerable expense.  In any event, I know many folks who run a home office who have paid considerably more than $2500 on furniture buying all their stuff from Ikea at retail prices if you count cabinetry, phones, labor cost, etc. “Removal of context” alarm bell.

(2) The story quotes the retail price for an “Aeron” chair of $730.  This seems particularly odd, because presumably The Washington Times has access to this damning OpenTheBooks report.  Why don’t they report how much the EPA actually paid for each chair?  Hey, maybe the government actually *did* use its buying power for good here… Aeron chairs are high quality chairs that last a very long time and are ergonomically much better than your average desk chair and if the EPA managed to get a bulk discount that would be good to know. I have one at home, a holdover from my dot-com days, and it’s lasted fifteen years now, longer than either of the two cheaper chairs I’ve had at my office over the same time period.  But no, rather than tell us how much the government paid per chair, they instead tell us that they spent “tens of thousands of dollars” on these chairs.  “Bait and switch” alarm bell.

(3) There are thirty hyperlinks in the Washington Times story.  Notably, none of them go to the two things we need to see: the full text of the “OpenTheBooks.com” report, or the full text of the EPA’s response.  “Hiding the source” alarm bell.

That last one gets worse.  If you go to OpenTheBooks.com, guess what?

You won’t find a copy of this report.

Seriously, this bombshell report on government accountability and waste, supposedly created by an organization whose sole mission is to “increase transparency”?  Not on their web site.

What is on their web site?  External links to sites that are reporting on their report.  Cyclical reporting triggers my “manufactroversy” bell.

Adam Andrzejewski, the CEO of OpenTheBooks.com, is quoted in the Washington Times report as saying:

“While private companies and citizens face more and more hardship from government regulation, the EPA literally sits in the easy chair,” said Adam Andrzejewski, founder of OpenTheBooks.com. “The EPA can’t relate to the financial hardships regular Americans face. It’s Herman Miller furniture for the bureaucrats, but Ikea for the taxpayers.”

Heh.  Mr. Andrzejewski clearly has no partisan bias explicated there.

Well, to be fair… it’s still entirely possible that the EPA has indeed overspent.  Mr. Andrzejewski may be doing journeyman’s work, here.

But there are other possible explanations as well.  I can pull two out of my hat.  First, it’s possible that the EPA has spent a reasonable amount of money and the report includes a lot of things other than furnishings in their accounting (since we don’t have their actual report, we don’t know what they’re including).  Second, it’s possible that the EPA has overspent, but it’s due to something along on the lines of Congress dictating who they’re going to buy their furniture *from*.

Oh, Adam Andrzejewski?  This is not his first go at a government transparency web site.  Also missing from that earlier web site?  Any searchable list of reports (he’s also an occasional contributor to The Huffington Post and Forbes).  You can find some reports (like this one), but not by looking at openthebooks.com, you have to find links that Mr. Andrzejewski has published elsewhere.

 


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Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution. ...more →

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26 thoughts on “$92 million

  1. Good run down of why this is sleazy and almost certainly crap. Heck it really doesn’t take much to know that office furniture is always expensive. When i worked at a mental health center we paid many thousands for super fire resistant file cabinets and mediocre office furniture.

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  2. I tried to get a home version of the semi-crappy chair I use at work? 300 bucks, used. I want an Aeron chair. They are the longest lasting and most comfortable chairs you can get. They breathe well, they’re highly customizeable, they offer tremendous support and if your job involves sitting on your butt, it’s well worth the money.

    92 million over ten years for 17,000 employees? All that takes is a once a decade replacement of worn out stuff plus regular maintenance.

    5400 a head will get you….a standard cubicle, decent chair, and maintenance for a decade.

    It’s like these idiots have never had to price office furnishings before. Maybe they should do a quick sanity check with an HR department who could probably rattle off their per-person costs for furnishing, building maintenance, etc in a heartbeat.

    If they’re counting carpet cleaning as ‘furnishing’ then there’s no telling what shenanigans they’re pulling with the numbers. Is wiring the floor or ceiling for internet ‘furnishing’? Heating and cooling? Desktop PCs?

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    • They breathe well, they’re highly customizeable, they offer tremendous support and if your job involves sitting on your butt, it’s well worth the money.

      Yeah, the whole Ikea comparison is ridiculous. I’m sitting on a Herman Miller chair and I’m in a cubicle. Companies that can spend on quality furniture, fixtures and equipment will do just that, as should government agencies.

      5400 a head will get you

      Another way to look at that is that it’s $500 per year per employee. That’s paltry. It’s probably replacement of equipment, build out costs (i.e. moving into space and needing new cubes, furniture, etc.), etc. for an organization with 17,000 employees.

      I’m always wary of partisans when they start throwing around the numbers.

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      • Bluntly, it’s a “scary number” because it’s big and the average reader has no comparison for it. Is it high? Low? Cheap? Expensive?

        That’s not stated. But the big total aggregate total (over a decade no less) is tossed around to make it seem as excessive as possible.

        Because who here happens to know what it costs to outfit an office? Few people will even bother to break it down and think for a second about what stuff costs.

        5k a person? Over 10 years? That sounds about right for outfitting a cube farm if you plan to be in business in ten years. Actually a bit on the cheap side — I suspect the chairs are their only real ‘big ticket’ item, and if my experience with NASA was any indication — those go in conference rooms, the offices of higher ups, and places where there’s a lot of ‘hot seating’ (multiple people will use that chair a day or week, it’s not just there for the guy who sits in that cubical) or that appear on camera.

        They’ll gradually filter down to the cubical monkeys. Maybe. If that building happens to be refurbished. And the chairs are worn out. Then they’ll replace with the good ones, but mostly because they last longer.

        The chairs I always sat in were the 300 to 350 mass office chairs. Just adjustable enough to meet ergonomic standards and hard wearing enough to last. The chairs in the nice conference rooms (ie: not our normal one), or the ones in the brand new buildings or those totally refurbished were nicer.

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    • Also, conference rooms? For our 150-person office, we had easily a conference room seat for every five people, plus conference/video/video-conference infrastructure.

      Depending on just how much of things like maintenance, public spaces, etc. were counted, how many entirely new offices were built, how many were renovated, and the like – $92 million might be evidence of how well they spent their money…

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      • Oh yeah, furnishings most likely include the video-conferencing equipment. Heck, depending on how they counted it it might include the whole phone setup. The EPA is probably stuck running a full system (you can get cheap 50 or 100 seat digital solutions that are really basically VOIP systems running off a server, but that won’t scale to 17,000 employees — and I wonder about security).

        If they’re running cube farms like everyone else, you have to have conference rooms (the only way three or more people can discuss a problem without annoying their neighbors), which require support systems for telephone or video-conferencing….

        Of course we could see all this information if we could see the open report. Weird that we can’t, right?

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  3. Mr. Andrzejewski may be doing journeyman’s work, here.

    Good post. At the risk of picking editorial nits, I think the idiom you are aiming for here is that he may be doing yeoman’s work here.

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  4. So being a Fed – albeit NOT in the EPA – I can attest to three things when it comes to “furnishings.”

    First, the cubicles that we mostly work in both in DC and elsewhere count in that category. The one I sit in at work is over 10 years old (at least that’s what the not very well hidden manufacturing sticker says). To replace one floor of these cubicles in a modern office building would cost upwards of a million dollars. Multiply that by the number of EPA offices nationally, and you get way past $92M.

    Second, Aeron Chairs are not ubiquitous – they are slowly coming into use in most agencies for the reasons cited, but in ones and twos per year, not thousands.

    Third, most of our “furnishings” have to be bought through the General Services Administration (GSA) contracted vendors. So on an individual level we have little control over what is bought. Federal contracting rules require GSA to pursue multi-vendor best value contracts, and that is all open to the public in various ways and stages.

    Interestingly, Wikipedia quotes a Cato Institute study that shows the federal government also spent $92 Million in 2006 alone on “corporate welfare” mostly through tax breaks and other other forms of foregone federal revenue. You be the judge which is a bigger scandal.

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  5. About those Aeron chairs: sitting for long stretches of time is not very good for your back, especially the lumbar region. Sitting for long stretches of time is not very good for your back, especially the lumbar region. An ergonomic chair, if properly used, will significantly reduce the strain that sitting for long stretches at a time puts on that region of the spine. This, in turn, will reduce the number of claims that are made on the federal workers compensation system, thus saving taxpayers money. Alsotoo, we can reasonably expect that for at least a significant percentage of workers, a employee who is comfortable will be more capable of doing better work, for longer periods of time, than an employee who is uncomfortable sitting all day long in a cheap, wearying chair. Office furniture is not the place to get cheap. Maybe it’s not the place to get extravagant, but there is a happy medium, and quality matters.

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    • That is completely correct. However there is solid subset of conservative voters, and few dem’s, who think all government employees should get only the absolute minimum. Gov buildings should be quonset huts and the staff should be given as little as possible. The line about gov shopping as fancy stores while citizens shop at Ikea is the key. People who work for gov are being treated well or at least decently while citizens have crap.

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        • Well we don’t have an Ikea since we are more rugged and hardy then you folk. As i remember Ikea, while having cheap furntiture you screw up putting together yourself, was a fashionable hip thing. Not a salt of the earth real american kind of thing. You know a hipster outlet for people who like european ( hiss) kind of stuff.

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        • You can get semi-decent computer chairs from IKEA. IIRC, however, it’s at least 250 dollars for one that you can sit in for hours without killing your back.

          Honestly, if your butt’s gonna be in it more than an hour a day any chair is gonna run you 250 bucks, minimum.

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