Post conference scandals, agencies struggle to find balance

Wednesday - 1/15/2014, 4:09am EST

Jason Miller on the Federal Drive.

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Agencies are spending tens of millions of dollars less on travel and conferences today after repeated scandals came to light in 2012.

Some in Congress want to know what more can be done to ensure agencies will not go back to abusing the system in the future. At the same time, lawmakers also want to make sure agencies are not missing out on important opportunities that conferences provide.

Members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee are asking agency officials and inspector generals for help achieve the right balance.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the committee, said agencies must be good shepherds of their funding, but not overlook the benefits that come from conferences.

"Agencies have found ways to cut conferences and meeting costs through technology, through conference calls, webinars and other means," Carper said to kick off Tuesday's hearing. "We must not forget the value of face-to-face meetings amongst agencies, and more importantly, with those who work outside of the federal government, for whom, in many cases, we work. When properly planned and managed, conferences can serve a legitimate and often times necessary purpose of fostering collaboration and partnership between government employees, state regulators, academia and industry. And while it's important that agencies make efforts to eliminate any unnecessary spending on conferences and travel, you must be careful not to unduly restrict the ability of our agencies to interact with outside groups and our citizens."

Carper said the committee heard from numerous groups, including non-profits, state regulatory agencies, military associations and scientists, that conference and travel regulations could cut off their ability to interact with the government.

Combination of factors

In many cases since the General Services Administration's Western Regions Conference scandal came to light in April 2012 and subsequently other similar scandals at the departments of Veterans Affairs, Treasury and Justice, agencies have severely restricted conference attendance and planning.

Part of the reason is the abuses that came to light, but the other part is the budget cuts under sequestration.

The Office of Management and Budget issued a memo in May 2012, directing agencies to cut travel spending by 30 percent starting in October and prohibiting more than $500,000 to be spent on conferences.

The fallout from the scandals and OMB's belt tightening seemed to work.

A recent survey by Market Connections, Inc. and Boscobel Marketing Communications in September found nearly 72 percent of survey respondents said they have attended fewer events in fiscal 2013 than they did last year. About 57 percent of respondents also said their agencies had hosted fewer events this year compared to 2012.

But what Congress cares the most about is how agencies are spending money.

Beth Cobert, the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, said the 2013 numbers show significant and continued decreases. Cobert said agencies spent $3 billion less on travel in 2013 as compared to 2010.

"To maintain this lower level of spending, agencies are evaluating and rethinking how they conduct conferences that support their missions while keeping spending under control," Cobert said. "For example in 2013, the Department of the Treasury achieved $181 million in travel savings. They did this by implementing more restrictive guidance, increasing the use of IT-enhanced tools, reducing the number of employees attending conferences, reducing the number of participants attending training events and canceling multiple annual conferences."

Along with Treasury, Cobert highlighted the Interior Department's savings of $99 million by implementing a program to manage conference spending.

"This included close scrutiny of all conferences, as well as deputy secretary review of all conferences over $100,000. Interior also continues to increase the use of technology in lieu of travel," she said. "The Department of Defense reduced spending on hosted conferences with a total cost of more than $100,000 each by a total of $69 million in fiscal year 2013."

Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency cut travel costs by $35 million as compared to 2010 levels, and the Labor Department spent $29 million less on travel and conferences when compared to 2010 expenditures.

Problems still exist

Not every agency was perfect. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the committee's ranking member, pressed Cobert on spending data and rationale about conferences run by and/or attended by employees of the Agriculture and the Education departments.

Coburn said, for instance, USDA employees attended 31 conferences that cost on average more than $10,000 per employee, and 125 conferences that cost more than $3,000 per employee to attend.