VA cracks down on conference spending

Following a new inspector general’s audit of two conferences held in 2011, the Veterans Affairs Department has enacted numerous tactics to check spending, root out misconduct by employees and keep senior officials involved in conference planning.

One key control is a new requirement that a senior executive must approve all proposed conferences or training sessions, the department said in a statement Oct. 1.

The undersecretary, assistant secretary or similarly-ranked VA official has to give approval for a conference proposal with project costs reaching to $100,000. If the expected costs exceed $100,000, the deputy secretary and the chief of staff must approve. Conferences with a bill expected to exceed $500,000 are generally prohibited, unless the VA secretary gives a waiver. As an additional check, officials must do an “After Action Review” following the conference to compare proposed costs to actual costs.

VA officials issued conference-related guidance Sept. 26 to address problems the IG’s investigation uncovered, and set up acquisition rules and quarterly reports on conferences. Starting this month, the VA will begin a Conference Planning and Execution Briefing Cycle, during which each administration and staff office will be responsible for briefing the chief of staff quarterly on any anticipated conferences the VA proposes to host or co-host, or that VA employees will attend during the upcoming year. The chief of staff will also host additional meetings to deal with planning and authorizing conferences expected to cost more than $20,000.

The briefing meeting is part of a new four-step planning process:

    • First is the concept phase, in which planners develop their proposal and present it at the quarterly conference planning meeting.
    • Next, in the development phase, planners draft their business case.
    • In the execution phase, the conference is planned for and held.
    • Lastly, in the reporting phase, officials check to make sure event planners followed all policies and also conduct the After Action Review.

In large part, VA officials are setting up policies to save money and avoid waste. To cut costs, VA officials will clarify in acquisition policy that pre-planning site visits are unnecessary for market research, because the conference information is online or available to officials. In other words, “no travel will be undertaken prior to conference approval,” VA officials wrote to the IG in the report.

As the planning process continues, offices must notify the approving official if costs climb more than 5 percent over the initial budget. Even more approvals are necessary if costs go higher than that, according to the department’s response to IG report recommendations.

VA officials created two new supervisory roles. Each VA office must appoint a senior executive official to be responsible for certifying conferences  and another executive as a “responsible conference executive.” The RCE is to ensure the VA does not pay for entertainment, such as videos, motivational speakers, or the purchase of “SWAG,” or “Stuff We All Get.” In the conferences under investigation, the IG found that VA employees improperly accepted room upgrades, meals, limousine services, golf, spa services, helicopter rides, and tickets for the Rockettes.

The IG’s probe concerns two human resources conferences that VA held in Orlando in 2011, which has led to employees being put on administrative leave and the chief human capital officer’s  resignation. Auditors found waste and mismanagement adding up to a price tag of roughly $6.1 million for the two conferences. Conference  planning was marred by leadership failures and ethical lapses, the IG reported Oct. 1. 

The investigation has led to the resignation of John Sepulveda, VA’s assistant secretary for human resources and administration and CHCO. The IG found that Sepulveda failed to provide proper guidance to senior executives in his organization related to the conferences.

Before the report came out, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki made changes to policies related to conference planning and attendance.

“Secretary Shinseki has taken immediate action to address the issues outlined in the IG report to strengthen oversight, improve accountability, safeguard taxpayer dollars and help ensure such incidents do not occur again,” the department said in a statement released Oct. 1. Along with policy changes, Shinseki launched two internal investigations, one looking at VA training and the second looking at conference planning policies.

In a statement reacting to the IG report, the House Veterans Affairs Committee’s top members also chastised VA’s leadership for allowing the conference waste.

“This sort of funny money accounting must stop and will no longer be tolerated, especially in today’s tight fiscal climate,” said committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). “Using the figures based in today’s report, it can be reasonably concluded that 10 to 15 percent of VA’s conference spending is wasteful, amounting to $10 to 15 million a year, at the least.”

He also called on the VA to take appropriate action, especially at the senior management level.

Despite Shinseki’s Sept. 26 guidance, Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), the committee’s ranking member, said in his own statement that the revamped policies “will only be effective if management and leadership is held accountable, and if they approach spending taxpayer dollars with the same care and attention they would approach spending their own resources.”

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Reader comments

Thu, Oct 4, 2012

Why is it that Dems like Tom have to try to find a way to blame Republicans on problems like this? First, Congress is supposed to be regulating the Government first and that money they are wasting includes what these agencies are wasting on expensive conferences and other self promoting activities at taxpayer expense. The economy will fix itself if the Government gets out of the way. Somehow he must think it okay for the Feds to waste money and that the private sector has no idea how to take care of itself when just the opposite is true. Second, the economy started going down just a year after Dems got control of both the House and the Senate and now people like Tom are blaming the Rebulicans when they only have control of the House for the economic problems generated when Dems were in control. With attitudes like Tom's it is no wonder we have such wasteful spending and Government interference in the economy that prevents it from growing.

Thu, Oct 4, 2012 Paul

Everybody seems to think a copnference should have measurable goals and quantifiable cost benefits. The problem is that much of what happens at a conference, much like most of our jobs, cannot be quantified. In one example, we saved the military millions of dollars by working with another agency to use an existing platform rather than develop a new one. This was a direct result of the relationships developed at conferences with our counterparts at another agency. That would have never have happened if not for the informal gatherings we've had. I'm all for making sure there is a defined purpose behind a conference, and that money is not wasted on frivolous expenses, but this idea of NO conferences EVER, even those that are already approved and funded by someone else, is simply ludicrous. All of us are professionals but continue to be treated like children and it's just plain silly.

Thu, Oct 4, 2012

Ron W, If you have to go to a conference to find out both what your projects are and who will be on your team, then obviously your communcation network is broken. Between emails, teleconferences, regular mail, and the telephone I do not see how your organization can mess up something so bad that it takes some expensive, time consuming conference away from the office to get you to pay attention to or learn about your job. Typically, when I am required to attend these distant get togethers I find I get very little out of them and get far behind at the office doing my real job. My take is that most conferences are overrated partly because most people go to them with the attitude that it is a time to relax and get away from their real work. Just think about where they typically held (places like Las Vegas for instance) and that should be clear to all.

Thu, Oct 4, 2012 Tom Minot ND

Congress should look at its own spending habits. It is easy to attack other government departments and overlook their own wasteful spending, not to mention the fact that the republican controlled congress has done absolutely nothing in terms of governing for the past two years. Every republican member of the congress and senate should be fired for failing to do the job they were elected for, i.e., enact actions/bills to help recover from the recession. Instead they sat very comfortable on their thumbs up their rear ends and collected 174K a year salary. And they want other people fired for doing a bad job?

Thu, Oct 4, 2012 Bewildered

Isn't this type of over indulgence and spending exactly what this current administration has been bashing banks, industry, and essentially the entire private sector for? Exectuive perks that are bashed as excessive? Wealth distribution makes sense here...FIRE those involved and replace them with people that are not going to bend the interpretations of the rules to fit their personal situational ethics

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