Looking for lessons from the GSA conference spending debacle

With all eyes on the General Services Administration as it navigates the fallout from excessive spending on a conference held in 2010, the message many agencies are hearing is: Avoid conferences, but if you must hold one, keep expenses to a bare minimum.

There’s no doubt that from now on, internal agency events and even government/industry conferences will be subject to intense scrutiny. Officials will question whether every detail of an event is worth the money or the possibility of national exposure. That approach might keep agencies out of the limelight, but the impact on collaboration and communication — particularly between government and industry — could be profound.

Since he took over as GSA’s acting administrator in early April, Dan Tangherlini has said numerous times that he is conducting an agencywide review of conferences and other events that involve travel and the spending of taxpayers’ money. He has already canceled some events that involved only internal staff.

“There will likely be many more austere entertainment events from now on and even less free time” built into them, said Jonathan Aronie, a partner in the Government Contracts Practice Group at Sheppard Mullin law firm.

However, Aronie and other experts say they hope the emphasis on efficiency and smart stewardship doesn’t eliminate networking or training events. “They ought not to stop just because of a risk to an agency for spending money on them,” Aronie said.

Bob Woods, a former senior GSA official and now president of Topside Consulting Group, said GSA had gone a bit astray by moving to bigger conferences where selling was the main objective. “They need to get back to a more personal, smaller version where expenses are managed and agency missions are the focus, not deals on wheels,” he said.

Nevertheless, the concerns about any type of conference spending are clear. “There is already a typical disproportionate reaction around town,” said Larry Allen, president of Allen Federal Business Partners.

Congress is doing its part to make sure that concern lingers. “What has come to light surrounding GSA’s activities should give pause to anyone,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said April 16 at the first of several GSA-related hearings held that week.

Wasteful spending happens, Issa said, but Congress and the Obama administration must “mandate a culture that prevents this type of waste and mismanagement.”

Trying to find a silver lining

At a recent acquisition conference, Martha Johnson, who resigned as GSA administrator when the scandal broke, described the agency as expert shoppers. It is ironic that both Johnson and her predecessor, Lurita Doan, were brought down by procurement irregularities (although Johnson was not directly involved). If GSA is going to sell its procurement expertise and services to other agencies, it will need to stamp out rogue spending.

The biggest danger now is that all internal training will be cut and conferences that bring together buyers and sellers of many GSA services, such as GSA Expo, will be at risk.

However, on a positive note, Aronie said such scandals inevitably make other agencies take stock of where they are spending their money and ensure that common sense prevails. And Brian Miller, GSA’s inspector general, told the House committee that another positive outcome is the knowledge that oversight does work, however slowly.

Furthermore, the scandal might finally help the Senate and White House understand how important it is for GSA to have a confirmed administrator at the helm. Johnson, who resigned as administrator as the scandal broke, said the lack of a permanent leader for nearly two years hurt the agency’s customer service and left it without a clear strategy for the future. In the midst of an election year, the agency is not likely to get a confirmed leader for at least another year so the best interim hope is for a decisive acting administrator.

Rebuilding confidence and restoring employee morale will be a challenge. “If GSA can get someone who appreciates all the workings of the agency, then it has the chance to come out ahead in the long term,” Allen said.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.


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