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Much-Maligned AOC Deserves Better From Congress, Media

My reason for writing this response to coverage of the Office of the Architect of the Capitol is not to discuss the relative merits of possible alternative space names in the Capitol Visitor Center, but rather that the Congressional debate is being framed in the context of “mistakes” made by the AOC, an office I ran for 10 years.

The June 19 issue of Roll Call included a “CVC Watch” article that discussed the recent directions given to the AOC to study the options and costs of reconfiguring space in the Capitol, including the Capitol Visitor Center, to meet space needs “adequate for a meeting of conferees of the full committees.” The article also discusses a possible name change for the CVC’s main space that could potentially cost an additional $250,000. The potential name change also is discussed in a June 15 Washington Post article (in which one lawmaker said it didn’t matter that “Great Hall” had already been chosen by the Architect and that “it doesn’t mean you should keep a mistake.”).

Those close to the project are aware that the office of the AOC does not possess the decision-making authority that some may believe it has. The name Great Hall and the names of all other spaces were determined by the leadership of both chambers of Congress with both majority and minority participation, and the AOC was directed to so name them.

Congressional Directives
After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the AOC was directed to enlarge the scope of the original CVC project to include the design and construction of what was to have been “future expansion spaces” and to do so concurrently with the original “visitor” portion of the project. The leadership of both parties in each chamber determined the use of all areas of the expansion space and directed the AOC to implement this work.

This fundamentally changed the original concept in that what had been assumed to become future office and support space was instead to be dedicated immediately as public assembly space. All of this complicated the work already under way by necessitating the widening and addition of exit stairs, changing structural and foundation systems for a large hearing room, and the redesign and enlargement of the overall mechanical system to accommodate the larger load.

To read that there is now dismay at “the failure of this project to provide adequate working space for Congress” and that the AOC has now been directed to study redesign options basically implies that the AOC made mistakes in building what is virtually now complete. The AOC, in reality, had to bend over backward to accommodate Congressional directives. While this agency exists to serve Congress and to be good stewards of the national treasures on Capitol Hill, it is being criticized for following directives that are now being second-guessed by Members who may not have been involved in the original Congressional decision-making process or by those Members who have developed different priorities.

These examples — the naming of the Great Hall, the programming of the expansion spaces, and the continuously evolving security and life-safety needs (discussed below) — are among the many that unfortunately have created a cloud of negativity over the AOC, an agency of dedicated individuals who provide Congress with exemplary service day after day under the most difficult circumstances and with multiple layers of oversight.

Evolving Security Imperatives
The June 19 Roll Call article also paraphrases Florida Republican Rep. John Mica’s remarks that “the scope and security requests had to be rethought three times, after the fatal shooting of two Capitol Police officers in 1998, the Sept. 11, 2001, attack, and the subsequent anthrax attacks on Capitol Hill.” Mica stated “each incident led to increases in the project’s size and security measures.”

It’s important to also note that the changes have gone even further as security and life-safety needs continue to evolve. Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer, who previously served as chief of the Capitol Police, candidly stated in the March 9 issue of The Washington Post that “the design morphed” with the evolving threats. He said security experts worried about an array of threats.

“What will someone want to do 10 years from now, and how will we be prepared for that? … We played each one of those scenarios out,” he said. “We were unmerciful in our demands and requests. … Any threat that was coming up, we wanted to make sure that we could counter. … I think we added to the time and cost, much to the chagrin of the architect.”

Other federal security agencies also brought changes forward that significantly impacted the project as the design morphed with the evolving threat level. These changes by security experts had to be accommodated and this was done with project oversight involvement. To not have implemented these changes would have placed the CVC and its contiguous Capitol building at greater risk.

Since security changes have been discussed at hearings over the course of several years, there are those involved in oversight who do not understand that the magnitude of the changes are so significant that their continuing impact on construction cannot be discounted. The reality is that necessary construction changes caused by both past and still evolving security and life-safety issues have continued to impact the work of the project in unanticipated ways and will do so until its completion and — in all likelihood — well beyond as threat scenarios change.

The Search for the Next Architect
I am concerned that the search for the next Architect of the Capitol has been strongly influenced by the perceptions of some that “management problems” on the complex CVC project are indicative of a need for the next Architect to be a three-star general or an MBA, but not an architect. I am concerned that all of the good work this agency of 2,200 people accomplishes on a day-to-day basis for the occupants of Capitol Hill has been ignored or forgotten.

I am concerned that all the good work that has been accomplished in building a modern, responsive and service-oriented team has been overshadowed by CVC issues and that there is therefore a resulting sense that the AOC needs to undergo significant reorganization and change. I also am concerned that the fundamental role of the Architect in protecting health, safety and welfare — as required for all licensed architects — could be compromised should the next AOC not be a licensed architect.

Although it is not widely known, it should be noted that the Architect of the Capitol agency has built its management team and implemented many important state-of-the-art management processes and systems over the course of these past 10 years. Among its many significant accomplishments are the following:

• Developed a robust “Strategic and Performance Plan” for fiscal 2007 through 2011. This plan is focused on results and provides the AOC with the means to measure success in achieving the mission “to provide Congress and the public a wide range of professional expertise and services, to preserve and enhance the Capitol complex and related facilities.”

• Achieved a clean financial audit from an independent auditing company and published a full “Performance and Accountability Report” with a full set of audited financial statements and performance metrics from the “Strategic and Performance Plan.”

• Cut injury and illness rates by some 70 percent over the past six years to a point where these AOC rates, with an 80 percent shop-oriented, blue-collar work force, are comparable to those at many white-collar, office-oriented federal agencies. The active involvement of all shops and the creation of Occupational, Safety and Health committees in each jurisdiction has been key to this success.

• Achieved outstanding customer satisfaction/quality service ratings over the course of the past five years as measured by annual campus-wide surveys that yielded superior ratings uncommon in the facilities management industry.

• Built a full-service and responsive human resources and EEO capability to serve the 2,200 people of the agency.

I hope the members of the search committee are taking these and the many other significant AOC managerial accomplishments into consideration as they continue their deliberations. These many initiatives have been monitored by Government Accountability Office task forces, which have looked inside and outside the agency and documented this continuous improvement process. Of the 64 recommendations that the GAO made over the past five years, 70 percent already have been implemented. The AOC is on the right track, and whoever is selected as the next Architect of the Capitol will be able to build on a strong foundation and continue providing and improving the agency’s quality of service.

Strong Existing Management Capabilities
In the context of the day-to-day management of the AOC, the agency already has a chief operating officer who has an MBA and who concentrates on the day-to-day facilities management functions that a 15 million-square-foot campus requires. He is supported by a highly professional and experienced facilities management superintendent in each of the many distinct jurisdictions making up the agency (i.e., the Capitol, Supreme Court, Senate office buildings, House office buildings, Library of Congress, Capitol Police buildings and Grounds division, Utilities and Power Plant division, Botanic Garden and Capitol grounds).

They in turn are supported by an effective central management staff that provides all of the financial, legal, human resource, procurement and other support services that a stand-alone federal agency requires. At the heart of it all are the 2,200 staff members who serve as custodial workers and laborers, groundskeepers, building operating engineers, restaurant workers, power plant workers, administrators, architects, engineers, mechanics, construction workers, curators and preservationists — all of whom take pride in the work they perform each day.

The lack of recognition and respect for the agency as a whole, and for all of the good work that the AOC staff continues to provide in support of Congress, is what initiated my response at this time. In my 10 years of service on Capitol Hill, I have never responded to newspaper articles or unfairly critical statements before, but as I see a great agency with 2,200 dedicated people effectively being maligned, and its morale being impacted by continuous Congressional negativity and press coverage, I could not remain silent.

The office of the Architect of the Capitol is one of the greatest assets Congress has in support of its needs, and I am so very proud to have led the team through these challenging years of growth and change. The AOC is an easy target, but the people of this fine agency deserve better.

Alan M. Hantman, FAIA, served as the 10th Architect of the Capitol.

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