Fewer feds, contractors attending conferences

Tuesday - 9/24/2013, 2:01pm EDT

Budget cuts and bad publicity have combined to put the kibosh on both the number of government conferences scheduled this year and the number of employees and contractors attending them, according to a new poll.

Among federal employees, 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 fiscal 2012.

Those are sharp increases from last year, when just 38 percent of federal employees said they were cutting back on conference attendance.

The poll of 161 government contractors and 383 federal employees was conducted by Market Connections, Inc. and Boscobel Marketing Communications.

"Many federal employees rely on conferences and trade shows as sources of information about new technologies, innovative solutions and best practices," a report accompanying the survey results noted. "However, whether serving civilian or defense agencies, they are caught in a vise of shrinking budgets, increasing travel limitations and ethical dilemmas.

Will innovation suffer?

About two-thirds of federal-employee respondents said they believed innovation and agency collaboration would suffer as a result of the drop-off in conference attendance. Nearly the same percentage of respondents said they feared the government would be unable to maintain best practices in their fields.

As a result, agency employees are increasingly shifting toward online webinars to make up for the lack of conferences. Fifty-five percent of respondents said participating in webinars was their main source of information and training in light of travel and conference cutbacks, followed by reading trade publications about their field, which was cited by 52 percent of government respondents.

Last year, just 18 percent of federal employees surveyed said they preferred webinars as a training tool but the study noted "it appears that budget and travel restrictions may now 'force' a de facto increase in webinar participation."

For contractors, perhaps the biggest changes as a result of the cutbacks in conferences will be how they engage with the government. Some 91 percent of contractor respondents agreed that industry will have to become more creative to inform their agency customers.

Budget, bad publicity constrain spending

Agency travel and conference spending have been constrained by the across-the- board sequestration cuts, ongoing budget uncertainty and the fallout from lavish conference spending at the General Services Administration and other agencies.

Last May, the Office of Management and Budget prohibited agencies from spending more than $500,000 on conferences and directed agencies to cut their individual travel spending by 30 percent in fiscal 2013

Since the OMB guidance went into effect, agencies across government have reduced travel spending by a total of $2 billion, according to the General Services Administration.

GSA also recently eliminated a special lodging allowance that allowed federal employees to spend as much as 25 percent more than government-approved per diem rates to attend conferences.

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