Survey: Feds can and should continue attending conferences

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As the Obama administration and Congress continue a crackdown on agency spending for travel and conferences, a clear majority of federal employees believe such gatherings are important and that their supervisors remain open to their participation, a new survey shows.

An online poll conducted in mid-August by Government Executive’s research division, the Government Business Council, drew from employees at 30 agencies some 350 usable responses addressing the value of attending conferences at a time of embarrassing news stories detailing overspending at off-site events by agencies such as the General Services Administration and the Veterans Affairs Department.

The chief reasons for attending conferences, respondents said, were professional training (cited as most important by 69 percent), sharing best practices (64 percent) and networking with peers/colleagues (63 percent). Additional reasons for attendance suggested in the survey included workshops for skill building (favored by 63 percent), discussing common problems (59 percent), listening to industry experts (50 percent) and team building (36 percent). Not surprisingly, only 3 percent acknowledged they go to conferences primarily for incentives such as prizes and giveaways.

Notably, given the existence of presidential executive orders and pending bills to reduce spending on conferences, fully 73 percent said their agency could sponsor their attendance at a future conference if it were applicable to their work.

The agencies with the highest response rates to the survey were the Veterans Affairs Department, followed by the Army, other Defense Department components, the Homeland Security Department and GSA.

The continuing enthusiasm for conferences in spite of the well-publicized waste perpetrated by a few planners is no surprise to Chris Vest, director of public policy for the American Society of Association Executives, a professional development group for leaders of industry groups and nonprofits. “A number of independent studies provide evidence of the value of in-person meetings, and it’s important to consider the valuable exchanges at meetings and conferences that occur between federal employees and the private sector,” he said. “Other types of communication, such as teleconferencing and videoconferencing, don’t really take the place of face-to-face communication.”

ASAE acknowledges, Vest said, that during a time of tight budgets agencies must focus on accountability and transparency. “But we have tried to emphasize in talks on Capitol Hill and with the administration that they not limit agency attendance at meetings of associations and the private sector,” he said. “At our own meetings, a great deal of substantive education takes place, but there are receptions, too, which are opportunities for networking with attendees.”

F. Joseph Moravec, who was commissioner of GSA’s Public Buildings Service from 2001 to 2005 under the George W. Bush administration, said, “no doubt some bureaucrats regard it as a perk of the job to go someplace and get away from the office. That’s nothing new, and it’s the same in the corporate world, a fun professional perk. But it also fulfills an important function. These organizations are huge, sprawling all over the country. One secret of government is that it often depends on a small group of individuals who know each other personally.” Conferences “enable high-performing federal officials to build peer-to-peer relationships that improve performance,” he said. “If one can pick up the phone and call that official in, say San Francisco, they will get better results.”

Moravec, who is now a managing director in the Washington office of Easterly Partners Real Estate Advisors, stressed the need to pay attention to the culture of government. “The permanent federal bureaucracy includes a fairly active schedule of conferences off-site,” he noted. For the president, they can provide an opportunity to convey a message to the rank and file. “Federal employees take the fact that they work for the president seriously -- regardless of their political views, they want to make things happen to look good,” he said. There are few opportunities for face-to-face meetings so gatherings “build better bonds between political people and career people, and if they all hear the same message in the same group, it improves the consistency with which that message is heard and acted on.”

The use of entertainment at conferences can mean “terrible optics,” Moravec said, but they add “lots of salutary things. A good sense of humor -- including making fun of the bureaucracy itself -- can help people be engaged, if not entertained.” Some team-building activities are “a well-proven way of building understanding and rapport in a large organizations,” he said.

Given that candidates running for office going back perhaps to the Kennedy administration have been bashing civil servants, he added, conferences and large meetings are a way of “sending the message, ‘We love you, we appreciate you,’ which is not bad for morale.”

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