Expert: New travel, conference limits may threaten transparency

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.

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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Reader comments

Thu, Aug 9, 2012

Hah - the "30%" savings will go to hiring FTEs in locations that we used to travel to 8-9 times a year for inspections &/or inventory. Especially when it's easier to get approval for new employees than for travel right now. Will it be cheaper? Not likely. But then, policy makers appear to care more about appearance than reality, polling over mission.

Wed, May 16, 2012

Once again we have a broad-brush "solution" applied to everyone in response to a single case of apparent wrongdoing. Even with the few exclusions allowed, singling out "conference" travel in this way shows little understanding on OMB's part of what conferences can mean to the many different functions of the Federal government. What about the Federal research scientist or engineer, for whom participation in professional conferences is typically viewed as a job requirement? In fact, being asked to chair a session or serve on a program committee for a conference is seen as a sign of career growth, and such participation is often noted in recommendations for awards or promotions. Such conferences are not hosted by the government; they are generally hosted by a professional society (American Geophysical Union, American Society of Electrical Engineers, etc.)as a means of bringing together professionals in that field (from academia, government, and the private sector)to make presentations on their work, attend short symposiums, see exhibits of the latest technology available for their use, and so on. These conferences are the primary means by which scientists and engineers are able to communicate current research results and advancements with one another, meet others with common interests for future collaboration, and stay abreast of the latest advances in their field. Information learned at conferences is typically broader and more current than anything published in the open literature. Not only do professional conferences provide a means for showing the public the work the government is accomplishing, they also provide a means for gleaning the best scientific ideas and technology from elsewhere (nationally and internationally) to apply for the government's benefit. In addition, the ability to have face-to-face contact and evaluation of a broad range of personnel, including students, means conferences serve as excellent recruitment venues for finding new talent for the government laboratories. Limiting the federal scientist's ability to participate in these professional activities will help guarantee that the struggle for the federal laboratories--and our nation-- to remain cutting edge in science and technology will only become more difficult than it already is.

Wed, May 16, 2012

I guess the DOI FPPS Usergroup meeting in Cocoa Beach next month will be cancelled then. Wait, nope...everyone is still going. One day of travel each way, two days of conference where little is learned. What a waste of funds.

Wed, May 16, 2012

Most of the training and conferences I've attended has been in DC. Truly one of the most expensive places to go. Someone isn't thinking with the light on. Althought I agree with teleconference, but will the government (read Congress) invest in the technology?

Wed, May 16, 2012

I have traveled to Las Vegas the last two years to attend IT security conferences. I attended over 32 hours of direct classroom training at each conference. I did not receive any plaques, commenorative coins or bicycles. These conferences have fulfilled annual CEU requirements to maintain necessary security certifications. Traveling to D.C., although closer for the same events would have cost approximately 40% more in overall travel costs with conference fees being the same. There is often more to stories than headlines suggest.

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