The Defense Department’s policy on conference spending is consistent with requirements established by the Office of Management and Budget. That’s the finding of a new report from the Government Accountablity Office.
In a May 11, 2012, memorandum, then acting OMB Director Jeffrey Zients issued guidance directing federal agencies to cut travel spending by 30 percent and prohibit more than $500,000 be spent on conferences.
The guidance allowed agency heads to approve spending in excess of $500,000 “if he or she determines that exceptional circumstances exist whereby spending in excess of $500,000 on a single conference is the most cost-effective option to achieve a compelling purpose.”
In addition, the guidance established a deputy-director level review of agency- sponsored conference with budgets of more than $100,000.
OMB also directed agencies to publicly report each January the previous year’s conference spending.
“These are all common sense steps that will save taxpayer dollars by eliminating waste and improving government operations — all while maintaining the core government functions that the American people count on,” Zients wrote in a blog post at the time.
DoD issued its own conference guidance in September 2012, introducing a tiered approval process for all conference spending.
“OMB requires that waivers approving conferences with costs in excess of $500,000 be signed by the head of an agency, while DOD’s policy delegates this authority to 23 senior leaders throughout the department,” the GAO report said. “DOD’s policy is more expansive as it requires senior-level review and pre-approval of all conference-related costs, compared to OMB’s requirement for senior-level review of conferences only when the estimated costs exceed $100,000.”
The report added that DoD’s policy meets OMB’s requirement for publicly posting conference spending data. DoD went even a step further by requiring quarterly reports on conference costs.
In most of the 363 conference requests that GAO reviewed, it documented key elements that were consistent with DoD policy and component-level guidance. Some officials within DoD, however, expressed concerns, especially when it comes to the lengthy approval process.
“The officials explained that requests to attend conferences have to pass through multiple offices and individuals, sometimes taking several months to be approved,” the report said. “In particular, officials raised questions about the efficiency of reviews for requests to attend conferences that incurred no cost or a low cost (under $20,000) to DOD, which at the time of GAO’s review went through the same process as higher-cost conferences.”
GAO reviewed 405 requests to attend non-DoD hosted conferences, 94 percent of those were for conferences that incurred no cost or were a low cost to DoD.
In November 2013, DoD updated its conference policy that approval was no longer needed for conferences that were no cost to the department.
The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 mandated that GAO review DoD’s oversight of conference spending. GAO did not issue any recommendations for DoD with its report.