Each week, GovLoop partners with the Washington Post to host a question of the week. This week, we're interested in learning more about government conferences.
A few months ago, there was quite an uproar over some $16 muffins that made their way into a Department of Justice event (which was proven false, by the way). Then there was yesterday's shocking news that GSA Administrator Martha Johnson is resigning over an about-to-be-released audit that would reveal excessive spending at a conference last year, which included clowns, mind readers and a pretty suite party.
Now I didn't eat the muffins and I wasn't invited to the GSA event in Las Vegas, but I'm curious what other government folks think about these stories:
1. Have you been to a government event where you felt uncomfortable at the "extras" that you experienced?
2. How does your agency manage its conference expenses, and are the DOJ and GSA episodes the norm or the exception?
3. From accommodations to travel, what spending is too extravagant or too stingy? Why?
*LATE ADDITION: Are vendors charging more to government because they think they can get away with it?
Feel free to share your response publicly below, by email to firstname.lastname@example.org (your response will remain anonymous) or over on the Post.
With over 35 years in the government at more than 6 agencies I have been to a few training conferences but nothing like the GSA Western Region Conference. I even spent 2 tours at GSA one from 1978 – 88 and then again from 2000 -04 both times highest grade was GS-12. The first time only the high rollers went to offsites, usually Lake Geneva as we were Region 5 and it was close with good golf. The 2nd tour PBS would have meetings around the region each year, maybe 25-30 people, but no big blowout parties (at lease that I was invited to).
The VA had one training conference in the 8 years I was there. It was in Chicago and we had people from the Milwaukee, Minneapolis, & maybe the Indianapolis Loan Guarantee Office ( which I don’t think exist anymore) . The Assistant Loan Guarantee Officer (a WWII tank commander) requested a donation from all the Chicago Regional Office Loan Guarantee employees to stock a hospitality suite.
FAA would have training conferences, depending on the program -- usually more contractors than government employees, but I was never high enough to get invited to the suite parties. If it was normal training it would take place at the FAA academy in Ok City.
The strangest was DOE where the feds had to pay for the snack, meals, etc. while the contractors didn’t – I still don’t understand that one. I chose not to eat & didn’t pay.
At GSA, I recall a working lunch while on a market survey & one of the proposed lessors paid for lunch for the agencies reps but no one from GSA would eat as it wasn’t allowed.
Regarding the DOE example: most likely the contractors' companies paid for their meals. I have seen that at State Department events before. Those companies are allowed to do that, and of course the government is not allowed to pay for their employees' food (unless of course we're talking M&IE).
I actually looked into this very issue for our agency because of the "$16 dollar muffin" scandal. (Which wasn't a scandal really - it was $16 a person for breakfast, which is a pricey continental breakfast, but you can eat a whole lot of muffins per person.) There's actually a lot of well-meaning but somewhat outdated laws relating to acquisition that make it incredibly difficult to arrange significantly cheaper conferences. For example, if you want to have an event, it's in the law that you cannot pay for food separately - you have to have it packaged as part of a larger conference package. As a result, if we want to have an event in our building for free, we not only can't provide lunch, we can't even provide coffee unless it's personally out of our own pocket. When we had an event, we directed people to our cafeteria and the nearby food trucks.
We basically found out that most of the expenses from events come from people who don't want anything extravagant; they just want something reasonably convenient. Understandably, they want the event in DC (even opposed to the VA or MD suburbs), they want lunch provided, and they don't want to deal with hauling around A/V equipment, all of which adds up far more than $16 muffins will in the end. It's the job of the folks who make the arrangements to find ways to make the cheaper option as convenient as possible.
This is a great answer, Shannon. Seems like you've done your homework!
In regards to government events and conferences, the GSA event couldn't be further from my experience while in the government. I was recently on the planning committee for an offsite conference for my organization. Attendees included several SES members, directors, and leaders in the organization. Due to austerity measures and agency wide rules, we were not even allowed to provide water. Everything from the coffee in the morning to the water bottles for speakers to the snacks to keep us going throughout the day was donated in pot-luck fashion. I get frustrated that transgressions like the GSA event make all Federal workers look bad when the majority of us are paying hefty prices to attend holiday parties and packing our lunches to go to offsite conferences.
Thanks for the input, Janna. I agree...and I think the press / public generally like to latch onto these situations, and in the case of the muffins, it was proven false (which I just learned 5 minutes ago, thanks to Jeffrey Levy below).
Andy, please don't spread the overblown claim that any agency paid $16 for muffins. That was a totally made-up thing so reporters could cry "scandal:"
Please edit your post to remove that claim - it just does disservice to the people who try in a very difficult legal and budgeting environment to do decently by conference attendees.
The GSA story is still unfolding, but the DOJ one has long been laid to rest.
As I said on Twitter, Jeffrey, thanks for pointing it out to me. I was not aware and corrected the text above.
Commenting on your questions:
1) I've been to, and organized, many conferences. Every one of them was worked over 100 times by contracting officers and attorneys making sure everything was legal and appropriate.
And I just attended a briefing for senior managers at EPA all about the rules for providing food at conferences.
The rules are byzantine and labyrinthine. For example, there are different rules for feds and non-feds attending the same meeting!
2) Carefully, according to federal regulations. Anything other than coffee and a donut, and maybe some fruit, is far beyond the norm.
3) Per diem costs are set by GSA, as are negotiated airfares. Above those, except in special circumstances that are reviewed by management, is extravagant.
As a small business, we worked closely with GSA over a dozen years in producing executive conferences. In every case, care was given to maintain appropriate and moderate accommodations and meals. GSA management was focused on cost containment, even though the events were produced as "no cost to government" model. Sponsorship defrayed some of the fundamentals such as audiovisual, directional signs and so forth. The report from the IG reflects business practices that are, in our experience, well out of the norm. In 2010, the negotiation climate should have been very favorable to the government finding a hotel providing per diem rooms and concessions. The hotel industry is climbing out of the economic downturn, but still, bargains are to be found.
Industries outside of government also analyze the value of conferences vs. the expense. This article reviews the pros and cons of conferences for a scientific audience:
The value of face to face connections, the "aha experience" as insight is gained from talking, the networking and meeting of peers with similar challenges are but a few of the values of conferences. When the primary goal of the meeting is information exchange and the event is managed to foster that, than the "mind-readers" and other fivolities fall by the wayside as utterly unnessary expenses.
1. No, we don't have the money for that.
2. See number 1. DoN/USMC is broke.... training, conferences....not us
3. It's too extravagant when you have to travel over 500 miles to a conference or training. Recommend "tele conference" or bring the "trainer" to YOU.
LATE ADDITION: Yes, vendors see $$ when the word "government" is mentioned.
Why have our past two credit card providers had terrible Web sites for reviewing charges? I have one personal card from the same company we use now, and there is a stark contrast in the information I can see on my personal card, and the government card. My personal card has a clean layout, and it is easy to understand what my balance is and what my charges are. The government card Web site leaves me waiting for when I haven't traveled to figure out where I stand.
Why is the program we have for travel expenses designed so that no one knows how to use it? (Job security?)
Why did we outsource creating new e-mail accounts? It used to be instant, and now I've been struggling to get one created for weeks.
Why is there no humility or modesty in travel-related expenses? Why have I been told not to try to save the government money, only to have this lesson confirmed through experience? The times I've tried to, it has backfired.
How can we create incentives to save money?
A number of states have scored high marks for creating more transparent budgets. In Massachusetts, expenses are posted online for the world to see within 24 hours. What if we did that at the federal level?