5 Ways to Get Your Conference Approved

Tips for planning off-site gatherings in a post-scandal budget environment.

Budget cuts and tighter regulations in the wake of high-profile cases of excessive conference spending have combined to put the squeeze on federal off-site gatherings this year.

However, the U.S. Chief Financial Officers Council shared guidance recently indicating that government travel is, by no means, forbidden. “As each agency reviews its travel and conference-related activities, it is critical for each agency to continue to recognize the important role that mission-related travel and conferences can often play in government operations,” the council said in a May 28 Controller Alert.  

For government officials scrambling to re-evaluate travel plans for important meetings and conferences, these five tips can help them economize without sacrificing quality and effectiveness.

1. Clearly define the purpose of the meeting. The more compelling the case for the gathering, the more likely it will receive approval. For instance, the guidance indicates collaborations among government scientists with industry and academic colleagues to drive innovation could be one approved purpose. Meetings for specific program reviews and oversight boards, law enforcement training and international operations are among other reasons for meeting in person. If the conference is a training event, the learning objectives and mission or job performance outcomes should be included in the written justification.

2. Focus on far-reaching and/or timely issues that will have major impact. While government employees might consider many subjects worthy of discussing face-to-face, it is important to find the subject that is likely to have the largest impact. A law or ruling that millions of Americans need to comply with when it goes into effect on July 1, 2014, for example, would be a compelling reason for government officials from across the country to convene in early 2014 to discuss how that should be communicated, and to prepare for implementation.

3. Secure commitments from key participants before selecting the date for the meeting. With financial constraints, it is no longer possible to justify having a meeting without the people who bring the most expertise to the table, and whose knowledge and insights will advance discussions and teach others. An effective meeting requires firm commitments from the pivotal people in their field, for the topic being covered—whether it is a rocket scientist for a NASA session, specific medical researchers for the National Cancer Institute or the chief financial officer for a budget session.

4. Create an agenda, a collaborative document, indicating which participants will pay for each component of the meeting. This step will ensure that each agency involved can provide funding according to the appropriate policies. The agenda becomes a tool for sharing expenses and reducing the cost burden on any one agency. One agency could be responsible for underwriting the cost of audiovisual services, for example, while another covers the expenses of meals or refreshments.

5. Review the list of invitees to ensure that only participants who will play an active role are included. Successful meetings thrive on involved participants. In the past, it was possible to include invitees who traveled to a meeting but never said a word. As government gatherings are being pared down and all costs evaluated, it is crucial to include only invitees who are likely to engage in discussion and collaboration. Silent participants expecting an “observer only” status can be excluded from the list.

With 30 percent budget cuts for travel and a requirement that meetings costing $100,000 or more be reported to the associated inspector general, executives must find ways to refine their planning. The result might be fewer meetings and smaller, less costly meetings, but it might mean more fantastic meetings. That is an outcome everyone would welcome.

Goran Gligorovic is executive vice president of Omega World Travel, a global travel management company based in Fairfax, Va. 

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