Expert: New travel, conference limits may threaten transparency

Unintended side effects of efforts to rein in careless spending could affect other administration priorities.

The Office of Management and Budget’s new policy limiting travel and conference attendance for federal employees could have an impact on government transparency, warns a policy expert.

OMB Acting Director Jeffrey Zients outlined in a May 11 memo that starting in fiscal 2013, agencies must spend 30 percent less on travel expenses than in fiscal 2010. The savings from that effort should then be funneled into investments that enhance the transparency of and accountability for government spending.

However, the travel limitations could lead to less agency representation at conferences, meaning less insight into the work the government does, said John Palguta, vice president at the Partnership for Public Service. Agency travel doesn’t always mean employees attending conferences as attendees. It also means leaders who talk about the government’s work, he said.
 
“It could perhaps mean a little bit less transparency if agency officials cannot accept invitations to attend conferences,” he said. “Agencies are going to have a challenging balancing act. We want agencies to still promote transparency, still go out and publicly talk about the programs and operations, the return on the taxpayer investment, and promote collaboration with the nongovernmental entities in the private sector.”

The memo also directs agencies to review all planned events and not spend more than $500,000 on a single conference. Details of any conferences exceeding $100,000 should also be publicly reported on the agency website, OMB directed.

The $500,000 cost limit for a single conference may not be an issue for smaller agencies but could be problematic to departments of vaster size, Palguta said.

“A half-million dollars is not insignificant, but for a large agency to even have a thousand attend, you can’t do that for half a million and have an agencywide training conference,” he said.

Agencies may exclude cuts to travel expenses if the cuts would undermine critical government functions such as national security, diplomacy, health and safety inspections and law enforcement, the memo said.

Without that exclusion, the limitations to travel and conference attendance “would have been draconian" and had a major effect on government operations, Palguta said.

“The bulk of government travel is mission-related,” he said. “With those functions being excluded, the 30 percent less on travel does come from what’s considered discretionary, which includes travel to conferences.”

The new policy puts in place approval levels that will ensure that travel and conference spending is on only the most important and mission critical activities, said management consultant Diane Denholm, vice president at the North Highland Company, and Ventris Gibson, executive consultant with North Highland and former chief human capital officer at the Federal Aviation Administration, speaking in a joint e-mailed statement.

However, for some federal employees the new rules could have implication on meeting continuing education requirements. Palguta said his hope was that government agencies start doubling down on investing in videoconferencing and virtual conferences to overcome that challenge.

"This policy will most likely have agencies put plans in place to ensure that they comply with the policy," Denholm and Gibson wrote in their statement. "The Executive Office of the President was sensitive to and fully aware of the governments mission critical responsibilities. We will also most likely see an increase in the use of automation and video conferencing technology."

The memo also calls for agencies to “move aggressively” to eliminate excess federal real estate and use current space more efficiently, and better fleet management.

“At the end of the day, we’ll see some underused federal facilities with leases not being renewed and if it’s government-owned property, we’ll see some bargains out there when agencies decide they won’t need the space,” Palguta said.

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