Post conference scandals, agencies struggle to find balance

Jason Miller on the Federal Drive.

Jason Miller | April 17, 2015 6:05 pm

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.”

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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.

Cobert did not have an answer for Coburn, but said she would get back to him with details.

Coburn and others on the committee are concerned that OMB’s policy actions are not strong enough to stop agencies from backsliding in the future.

“If DoJ tomorrow for this year wanted to spend $150 million on conferences, is there anything to stop them from doing it?” Coburn asked Michael Horowitz, Justice’s inspector general. Horowitz was one of three IGs to appear on the second panel of the hearing.

“As long as the attorney general approves the expense and determines it’s consistent with their guidelines, they could do it,” Horowitz said.

“So even though [OMB memo] 12-12 is on the books, there are no consequences for not following it?” Coburn asked.

“Other than our after the fact review that we would do,” Horowitz said.

“But that’s after the fact and the money is out the door,” Coburn interrupted Horowitz. “So the point is, one of the things is transparency, which is part of that. To really have transparency where each agency submits their conference costs. You mentioned private sector, there isn’t a business in the world that doesn’t look at what it spends on conferences to see if they are getting value out of the conferences. Do they sometimes use conferences as attaboys, to motivate? Yes, and there’s nothing wrong with the federal government doing that as well. The question is did we get some value out of it when we spent those dollars?”

Legislation needed?

Coburn authored the Conference Accountability Act of 2013, along with Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Jeffery Chiesa (R- N.J.), to codify the changes made by OMB and expand the oversight requirements.

Coburn said even though OMB issues a memo to add new accountability rules to conference spending, it’s not enough.

Coburn’s bill would require agencies to post details of all conference expenditures on their websites as well as a justification and cost-benefits analysis for why employees needed to attend the conference.

The House in August passed its own version of legislation to stop agency overspending of conferences.

OMB’s Cobert said, in many ways, agencies already are doing a cost-benefit analysis.

She said it’s part of the culture change that is happening across the government.

“I think the restrictions we have put into place have forced some very tough conversations about whether they’re able to have the in-person interactions they need; whether, for example, restrictions on the number of people are going, in an appropriate effort to manage the budget perhaps is creating challenges for the more junior individuals that don’t get a chance to interact,” Cobert said. “But I think those are the right conversations for agencies to be having. It’s the right conversation to be thinking about who should attend, how do we share knowledge better and how could we substitute in other ways?”

She pointed to the National Institutes of Health’s decision to hold peer reviews by video conference. It saved NIH money, but the video conferences also helped them access people who otherwise would’ve been tough to reach.

Cobert and GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini didn’t come out in support of the legislation, but weren’t adamantly against it either.

Carper said he wants to hear from the witnesses on where legislation could help before making any decisions about how to proceed.

He said he asked Cobert, Tangherlini and all three IGs to “come back to us and make some recommendations. If we were to take some legislative actions, what would be helpful? Especially for the folks in the IG offices, what additional tools or capabilities do they need in order to do better audits of spending in these areas?”

GSA IG Brian Miller said he supports legislation because IGs like clear standards and bright lines against which to hold agencies accountable. At the same time, however, he said any law has to be flexible enough for agencies to make the best decisions for themselves.

Restrictions too much for some

Several lawmakers expressed a common refrain in the federal community that the anti-conference feelings and actions may have gone too far.

Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.) said he worried that Interior Department officials couldn’t travel to Montana to talk with farmers and ranchers about their issues because of the travel restrictions.

Treasury Inspector General J. Russell George also said he’s concerned over how it looks to hold the annual tax preparers conference in Las Vegas despite the fact there has been no evidence of any wrong doing by Treasury employees.

And even Carper asked Cobert about whether the administration put any requirements on where conferences can be held, such as Las Vegas. Cobert said they have not, and only ask that agencies use their best judgment.

“I think it’s a very real concern and we are very sensitive to it,” Tangherlini said after the hearing. “We are paying close attention to things like the employee viewpoint survey to see if our employees feel they are being supported by leadership and management. We’re talking very closely to our vendor partners to make sure they feel we have enough opportunities for interaction. That’s our big issue, how do we strike the right balance?”

GSA also is trying to help agencies make better decisions. It developed an online tool listing all available federal facilities to use for meetings and conferences. GSA also added new requirements to the E-Travel Services 2 contract to improve accountability of spending on travel.

Tangherlini also said the Governmentwide Travel Advisory Committee, which it created in 2012, is looking at other ways to reduce travel costs and improve oversight of spending.

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