• Firing the Mind Readers and Curbing Federal Conferences

    The infamous $820,000 three-day training conference in Las Vegas that rocked the General Services Administration in 2012 seemed a witch’s brew of bad ingredients— frivolous-sounding entertainment such as a mind reader and a bicycle-building exercise and comic routines on video—blended with expensive staff planning trips and a well-lubricated private reception, all in a town where what happens there is supposed to stay there.

    The 2010 event, orchestrated by the agency’s Public Buildings Service, became a turning point in federal conference policy. Similar blowouts came to light at GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service, the Veterans Affairs and Justice departments, and the Internal Revenue Service.

    Appalled by bad publicity at a time of budgetary austerity, the Obama administration in 2011 issued a directive cracking down on travel and conferences. Early this year, then-U.S. Controller Danny Werfel told a House panel the policy had already saved $2 billion.

    GSA canceled several 2013 conferences: FedForum, on asset management; SmartPay, on purchase cards; and its acquisition Training and Expo.

    Not everyone is happy. In May, House members from Nevada introduced the Protecting Resort Cities From Discrimination Act. “Las Vegas was unfairly targeted as somehow being the cause of the wasteful spending,” said Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev. “Anyone who has ever traveled to Las Vegas can tell you that it is often cheaper to rent rooms and conference space there.”

    GSA acting administrator Dan Tangherlini says agency planners “had clearly gone too far.” But he is of two minds on whether Web-enabled confabs are an adequate substitute. “I agree that getting people together informally through travel is valuable, and that things can’t happen entirely through video,” he says, adding the previous GSA Expo in San Antonio successfully brought together contracting officers to see products and meet vendors. But by using social media, he adds, “we can have a thoughtful approach that expands relationships.”

    In late May, OMB released guidelines acknowledging the value of conferences but reinforcing the goal of a 30 percent reduction in travel spending from 2010 through 2016. The requirements include senior management approval and more public reporting of conference costs.

    “Key decision-makers in Washington are recognizing not just the critical importance of meetings to achieving government’s mission, but that these meetings have a profound impact on the overall economy,” says Rob Bergeron, executive director of the Society of Government Meeting Professionals.

    David DuBois, president of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, says many in his industry welcome the guidelines. “We’re all American citizens, and we don’t want to see waste,” he says. But hospitality industry indicators show conference attendance is slowing, he says, citing federal spending reductions and a slow economy.

    “If a two-hour teleconference or Skype can save 20 people getting on airplane and staying in hotel, then I’m supportive,” he says. “[But if an agency] needs interactive dialogue and innovating, if the desired outcomes are built around creativity and whiteboarding and looking someone in the eye and challenging their idea, you can’t do it with computers.”

    Retired Adm. Jay Cohen, a former chief of naval research who organized events while leading technology programs at the Homeland Security Department, says conferences have their place in government and industry. “There’s nothing like the art of the schmooze,” he says. “I always felt the most effective part of a conference was not the formal presentations, but the mixing that took place between sessions, so you could talk and bond and exchange ideas.”

    But given today’s stretched budgets, “once you’ve established a relationship, taken the measure of the other person in a face-to-face social or formal business encounter, there’s no reason you can’t use the incredible technology that is burgeoning everywhere,” Cohen says.

    GSA may be gun-shy, he adds, expressing support for Tangherlini’s leadership. “When there’s public embarrassment, there tends to be a pendulum swing, and in the end the system is better for it.”

    Original Source: http://www.govexec.com