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Three Questions They Should Have Asked at GSA

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Why is this man smiling? Jeff Neely, the Western Region director of the General Services Administration, is probably asking himself this question. In case you haven’t heard, Neely invoked the Fifth Amendment when he was called before Congress this week to explain why he approved $823,000 in expenses for a GSA management retreat at a Las Vegas casino and resort.

This cheesy photo was taken by Neely’s wife on one of his five government-paid recon trips to Vegas to scope things out before the retreat. She then posted the picture on her Google Plus account. Seriously. (Hat tip to my friends at Government Executive who shared the snap after it was unearthed by ABC News.)

The GSA scandal story has taken off, I think, because most of us cannot believe that any federal manager would approve a budget that included $8,000 for a mind reader, $75,000 for a bicycle building team building exercise and $44 a person breakfasts. Oh, yeah, let’s not forget the $6,000 for commemorative coins and the $8,000 for participant “yearbooks.” (There are recaps of all this everywhere, including the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and The Washington Post.)

Maybe I just fell off the turnip truck, but I can’t believe it myself because I know of federal agencies that aren’t even providing free bottles of water or coffee during training events. Honestly, I can’t think of any of my private sector clients that spend the kind of money that Jeff Neely authorized. In a post-meltdown world, it’s just not good form.

So, I won’t venture to psychoanalyze Neely’s motivations in engineering this mess, but I can think of three questions that any leader – public sector or private – should ask themselves before authorizing a mega-bucks budget.

  • Would I spend my own money this way? This seems like a pretty good place to start. Would you go on five planning trips (and authorize three more) if you had to pay out of your own pocket? Would you stay in a $500 to $1,200 a night hotel suite for multiple nights if it was coming out of your wallet? If the answer is no, that’s a warning sign.
  • Am I trying to hide it? Neely must have had some warning signs of his own in planning the meeting. It’s reported that he asked a GSA lawyer to give an opinion on the $75K bike building session but to not write it down because it might “become discoverable.” If that little voice inside your head says, “Let’s make sure we hide this,” that’s a pretty good indication that you shouldn’t do it.
  • What’s my point of reference? It’s been widely reported that Neely directed his staff to make the Vegas meeting “over the top.” In the process, the budget ballooned from $300,000 to over $800,000. Seriously, dude — over the top compared to what? Compared to what other federal agencies do for their management conferences? Compared to what Goldman Sachs does for theirs? Compared to what most people on Planet Earth would find acceptable? Making sound decisions about spending other people’s money requires a point of reference that is grounded in reality.

What other questions should Jeff Neely have asked himself? What’s your take on this story?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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