Limiting conference attendance fixes the wrong problem

Legislation that would restrict conferences is already having a chilling effect on government/industry communications, write FCW's Anne Armstrong.

Just when we thought the whole Las Vegas conference mess would go away, we get helpful suggestions from Congress in the form of amendments to completely unrelated legislation. The Issa/Coburn plan attempts to define and constrain government support of conferences and events. In the process, it gathers under its restrictions almost every kind of scientific meeting or educational conference, including many in this market. (Full disclosure: 1105 Media produces FOSE and other conferences that could be affected by these rules.)

The bigger issues include financial disclosure rules, approvals by the head of the agency and limitations on the number of conferences by a single organizer that federal employees may attend in a year. Regardless of the intent, the legislation is already having a chilling effect on government/industry communications.

Several high-level speakers from the Office of Management and Budget and other agencies have pulled out of conferences in recent weeks. Other executives are reluctant to commit to speaking at, or even attending, conferences for fear of attracting attention for the wrong reasons.

Conferences have been one of the safer ways to exchange information and ideas among all the players in this market. Government can talk about its special needs and challenges, and industry can learn where a new technical solution might be applied.

OMB’s 25-point plan for reforming IT management urges government to increase its engagement with industry. “The government benefits when there is broad engagement with industry before beginning an IT project,” the document states.

The irony, of course, is that the General Services Administration’s conference was not really about interacting with industry. It was an internally focused event. So let’s urge Congress to refrain from fixing the wrong thing. Lots of suggestions have been offered to address the spending and management issues that led to the over-the-top Public Buildings Service conference. We need conferences because in-person events are one of the few clear channels left for communication.

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