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Survey: Feds Favor Face-to-Face Meetings Over Videoconferencing

Meeting-planning industry offers data to counter travel budget cuts.

A new survey of federal employees facing Obama administration cutbacks in travel and conferences shows that a whopping nine out of 10 believe that face-to-face events and meetings are key to effective performance and fulfillment of agency missions.

As many as 92 percent said engaging with colleagues, peers, partners and vendors in person “improves their ability to do their jobs effectively,” in a survey of 100 agency employees involved in meeting planning at 35 agencies conducted March 2-10 by the private Meetings Mean Business Coalition. Fully 84 percent agreed that “America’s future innovation and competitiveness is tied to engaging, collaborating and learning with those inside and outside of government,” said the survey released on Tuesday.

Seven in 10 said that face-to-face contact “offers the best way to build public-private partnerships,” and 89 percent said in-person training, conferences and continuing education events provide a better learning environment. Similar percentages say in-person gatherings foster better teamwork and improve feedback along with networking and engagement. Eighty percent of federal employees said they are more likely to actively participate in training if it is a face-to-face session, and that the in-person events they have attended would not have achieved the same success if conducted remotely.

“When people meet face-to-face, relationships are developed in a way that simply cannot be recreated or matched,” said David Peckinpaugh, president of Maritz Travel Company and co-chair of Meetings Mean Business, in a call with reporters. “Because of budget cuts, sequestration and really onerous travel policies that have had a big impact on government agencies, we went directly to the source” to provide data beyond just anecdotes on why face-to-face meetings are so important. “That gets lost many times in the discussions and articles and dialog about government meetings,” he said.

“We’d heard stories about agencies not being allowed to serve coffee and restrictions that made it difficult to have a productive meeting,” added Bill Dalbec, deputy managing director of APCO Insight, which conducted the interviewing. “Having to spend more time going up to the deputy secretary increases the administrative costs of just getting the meetings planned and approved.”

The Meetings Mean Business Coalition, formed in 2009 by travel industry companies, sees the survey results as a new tool in influencing Congress and the administration to rethink the crackdown on conferences following scandalous reports about overspending by some units within the General Services Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and elsewhere. ”It’s important to reach across the table and shake hands, to see eye movement and body movement,” Peckinpaugh said. “That means stepping out from behind the desk and getting outside of the office and Washington to connect with colleagues and partners.” Sometimes that is the best way, he said, to “capture the attention of an individual to foster empathy and a sense of shared mission.”

While virtual meetings for those on a tight budget “have a very vital role to play,” he added, ”they cannot replace in-person meetings and training conferences,” cancellations of which, the coalition’s research shows, can even cost taxpayers money.

Influencing Congress to allow more conferences governmentwide “will be a long slog,” Peckinpaugh said. “But we are optimistic we can make a difference and get back to responsible investment in true, well-defined, goal-oriented conferences and events.”

Proponents of conferences often cite the scientific and engineering communities as an example of a group whose productivity benefits most from face-to-face contact. Earlier this month, the Government Accountability Office released a report showing that the Energy and Defense departments’ compliance with Office of Management and Budget conference approval procedures had greatly reduced event attendance.

The Army Research Laboratory reported a drop from 1,200 attendees in 2011 to 100 in 2013, and at Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories, attendance dropped by half. “The length of DoD's and DoE's conference review and approval processes, which has increased since implementing their policies, poses a challenge to timely decision making about conference requests that DoD and DoE have yet to fully mitigate,” GAO found. Until the departments establish time frames for approval, “scientists and engineers will continue to face uncertainty over whether they can commit to more active roles at a conference or take advantage of discounted registration fees.”

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