Work Travel in Government: Luxury or Necessity?

How have budget cuts affected your agency’s travel budget? Do you need travel to do your job effectively?

Let’s face it: the budget climate is not pretty. I think it’s safe to say that most, if not all, of us have faced budgetary hardships over the last couple of years. While there have been a couple of exceptions, most of us have faced pay freezes, sequestration, and some even furloughs. Among the first “luxuries” to go when budgets get slashed: travel. Although it’s hard to generalize across so many agencies with different priorities and missions, the question still stands: Is business-related travel a necessity or a luxury? I imagine that for some of you, it’s the former, and for others, it’s the latter. I’d love to hear from you.

For me personally, I would place limited travel in the necessity category. One of my performance standards deals with my ability to collaborate with others on scientific projects, and one of the best places to meet potential collaborators is at conferences and meetings. These meetings serve as the breeding ground for innovative ideas and new partnerships. Furthermore, I live in an area of the country that is somewhat rural, so the networking events that occur in major cities simply aren’t available in my city. As a result, employees at my location must be deliberate in planning to meet new people, and technical meetings are one of the few places where we are afforded the possibility of serendipitous relationships. Another of my performance standards mentions involvement in professional societies. We are rewarded for taking on leadership roles in professional societies (obviously none with a financial interest, though). This duty becomes much tougher without the ability to travel to the meetings held by these societies. Thus, without travel, it becomes hard for employees in my agency to satisfy performance standards. This situation seems a little bit absurd- that items requiring travel exist in employee performance standards, and yet, when the going gets tough, the travel funding does too- while the performance standards remain the same. Why not roll with the times and allow the performance standards to adapt to a dwindling budget? Are we that optimistic that the money will return, or are we simply inflexible (or worse, lazy) in changing the standards?

On the other hand, I can also see how travel could be perceived in many departments/agencies as a luxury. Between e-mail, conference calls and videoconferencing, online chatting (if your agency allows it), and informational webinars, making an in-person visit somewhere is less essential than it used to be. I think webinars are a particularly great way to get entry-level training in a topic. You still get to hear the speaker give their presentation and respond to questions in real time, and you’re guaranteed a seat where you can see their PowerPoint slides. Of course, webinars are often plagued by technical problems such as poor sound quality or instances in which the speaker gets disconnected from the broadcast, but overall, I think the benefits of webinars outweigh the minimal cost of spending a few minutes setting up your computer to listen in. Conference calls are also convenient, with the capability of bringing together quite a number of people, each of whom has the ability to contribute (unlike webinars, which are often limited to one-way communication from the presenter to the audience). Bonus: if you and your colleagues go to a central conference room to make a conference call to another group, this still gives you a chance to talk face-to-face with your colleagues before and after the call.

What do you think: luxury or necessity? Weigh in!

Erica Bakota is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Ann McFarlane

Work travel is a necessity, but it is getting much more difficult for the common worker to get approval. I need X number of CEUs to maintain my certifications, and rarely are the conferences/workshops/etc. held in my city. It is aggravating though, to see upper management go to the “see and be seen” conferences without any troubles, and the “working” conferences be turned down repeatedly. In person conferences are extremely valuable because of the interactions you get with others doing similar work. Webinars are good, but leave you feeling incomplete because you just get one or two points of view.