Agency Conference Spending Down But Senators Still Want Tighter Controls

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Embarrassments from conferences past—the mock “Star Trek” video made by the Internal Revenue Service, the mind reader hired by the General Services Administration—returned briefly to the spotlight Tuesday as senators quizzed administration officials on progress toward reducing agency spending on travel and confabs.

“There is good news to report,” said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. He noted a reported $3 billion in avoided costs in fiscal 2013 following a May 2012 Office of Management and Budget directive that tasked agencies to find savings of 30 percent in such administrative costs. “Sunshine is the best disinfectant, and 24/7 media will play gotcha,” Carper added, expressing hope that the Obama administration’s crackdown would “change the culture.”

But the panel’s ranking member Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said, “Those embarrassing memories will fade over time, and in the next five or 10 years, the government will slip into old habits.” Coburn, who reviewed problematic conferences held by agencies including GSA and IRS, said permanent legislation is necessary to enforce transparency and limit the amount of spending and employees participating in conferences. “IRS wouldn’t have done that Star Trek video if they’d known it would go up on,” said Coburn, who has introduced a bill on conference spending.

Coburn singled out Education for a conference for 6,000 financial aid specialists held in December that he had warned against. “The Education Department can’t fund Head Start, but it can spend $1 million in Las Vegas,” he said.

Beth Cobert, OMB’s deputy director for management, testified that “We believe we are succeeding in making cultural change that will stand the test of time, to reshape how conferences are conducted.” Agencies are “rethinking how and why conferences are conducted as well as the use of technology to reduce costs,” she said. “But conferences do have value. The sharing of knowledge with a large group facilitates collaboration and often sparks innovation,” Cobert added.

As examples of the value of face-to-face interaction to fulfilling agency mission, Cobert cited the U.S. Special Operations Command Sovereign Challenge Conference and scientific conferences at which new research is shared. The actions required of agencies in the OMB directive, she said, such as requiring deputy secretary approval of conferences exceeding $100,000, have helped Justice save $181 million in the past year, the Interior Department, $91 million and the Pentagon, $69 million.

New approaches included greater use of technology, reducing the number of attendees and, at the Pentagon, increased “visibility through a new central reporting tool integrated with defense management,” Cobert added.

Drawing on her private-sector experience at McKinsey & Co., Cobert said saving money on travel costs and making the best use of employees’ time is accomplished by examining “the purpose of getting people together.” If a presenter is simply offering a PowerPoint presentation, she said, then that might be better done via a webinar. “But a problem-solving session is harder to do unless you get together in the same room.”

Video conferencing technology, she said, is now less expensive than it used to be, and video communication can be used multiple times. “It’s a skill people get better at as they get more comfortable,” Cobert said, noting that the National Institutes of Health has succeeded in performing peer review via videoconference, allowing access to high-powered researchers otherwise not available.

GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini said his agency has “used the attention and mistakes” stemming from its lavish and controversial Las Vegas conference in 2010 to “ask questions, and focus on how the agency’s mission—which is to reduce costs—is reflected in every action we take.”

GSA’s conference spending has been cut by 80 percent in the past two years, at a savings of $68 million, through “rigorous internal controls,” Tangherlini said. These controls include an online conference attendance training module, online posting of justifications for all conferences costing more than $100,000, a facilities inventory tool that tells other agencies where federal office space is available for conferences, and an interagency advisory committee that includes private-sector travel experts. He touted “smarter engagement with people, and checks and balances in the organization” to catch abuses before they occur.

Under questioning about using travel agents rather than directing employees to book their own flights, Tangherlini said GSA saves taxpayers money by negotiating group fares for complicated trips under strategic sourcing deals that allow last-minute cancellations.

Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., called for more objective metrics on how to measure the value of conferences on the taxpayers’ dime. Tangherlini cited evaluations of conference participant surveys, and Cobert promised to monitor research on measuring the worth of conferences.

When asked about OMB’s tougher enforcement, Cobert said the requirement that agencies describe conferences on their websites -- set to begin in February -- is the main mechanism for accountability. “Dialogue is encouraged at the Chief Financial Officers Council,” she added.

During the hearing, inspectors general from GSA, IRS and Justice, who reviewed recommendations they’ve made during recent probes, reinforced that the administration is making progress toward avoiding wasteful conference spending.  “I believe the guidelines and continued monitoring will help ensure that questionable conduct will not recur,” said J. Russell George, Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.

The fiscal 2014 omnibus package unveiled Monday would codify an Obama initiative to require agencies to issue extensive reports to their inspectors general when they spend more than $100,000 on a conference. In addition, the measure would ban non-law enforcement agencies from sending more than 50 employees to any conference outside the United States and require light reports on any conference with a price tag of more than $20,000. The appropriations bill would prohibit federal employees from flying first, or any premium class, while on official business.

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