GSA's conference reforms bear fruit

Danny Werfel of OMB and Cynthia Metzler of GSA

Danny Werfel of OMB and Cynthia Metzler of GSA testify before the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. (Oversight Committee photo)

Cynthia Metzler, chief administrative services officer at the General Services Administration, came before a congressional committee Feb. 27—the second time in six months—to talk about conference and travel spending at GSA. This time, she could share with lawmakers the improvements GSA has made since spending scandal that surfaced in April 2012.

"GSA has instituted rigorous new controls and oversight to ensure that all proposed travel and conference expenses are cost effective, serve legitimate mission needs, and have appropriate levels of review," according to her testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service, and the Census.

Dan Tangherlini, GSA's acting administrator since 2012, changed agency leaders and did a top-down review of GSA's operations.

Since then, Metzler said, GSA has reformed its travel policies to reflect Tangherlini's mission of rooting out wasteful spending. "GSA has put in place strict internal travel and conference policies to reduce costs, provide strong oversight, and ensure that travel only occurs when necessary," she said.

GSA has required the deputy administrator to give approval when the proposed cost of a conference is more than $100,000. If a conference is more than $500,000, the acting administrator must approve it and document the justification for it. GSA has also limited its use of blanket authorizations, and is looking at requests on a trip-by-trip basis.

The policies are similar to provisions in the Government Spending Accountability Act (H.R. 313), and reform bill introduced by Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) on Jan. 18. H.R. 313 would also force agencies to institute spending limits and set up transparency requirements for conference and travel expenditures. Several similar bills were introduced in the House and Senate last Congress.

Metzler told the subcommittee that through fiscal 2012 alone, GSA's policies have helped save more than $28 million in travel and transportation costs.

Office of Management and Budget Controller Danny Werfel, who testified with Metzler, said OMB has required agencies to conduct thorough reviews of their conference spending and related costs.

In 2012, two months after GSA's inspector general released a report saying agency officials spent $822,000 on a Las Vegas conference, OMB released a memo ordering agencies to reduce conference spending in fiscal 2013 by 30 percent compared to fiscal 2010 expenditures.

He said the policies of oversight and reviews have led agencies to reduce travel expenses in fiscal 2012 by roughly $2 billion compared to fiscal 2010. Agencies have turned to webinars, teleconferences and video-conferences to conduct business they once may have traveled to do in person.

Yet, the subcommittee also heard from one House member who asked an important philosophical question.

Would the American people be better served if Congress worked without in-person interactions, even voting online?

"It could save hundreds of expensive trips each week to do that, but don't you think the country would be worse for it?" Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) asked.

A scientist before being elected to Congress, Holt said the scientific community works much better when members are able to get together.

"Weakening collaboration is not wise," he told the subcommittee. At least for the scientific community, "these instances are not wasteful spending, but instead are examples of federal investments in innovation and economic development."

About the Author

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

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Reader comments

Thu, Feb 28, 2013 Owen Ambur Hilton Head Island, SC

As a former Fed, it always amazed me that while paperwork was required to obtain permission to travel, there was no requirement to report any results. It seems to me that is an example of why government is often so inefficient and ineffective. It is as if all that matters is how much can be spent. What is accomplished often seems immaterial. Hopefully, section 10 of the GPRA Modernization Act can help to make government spending more efficient and effective, by making results (or lack thereof) more salient. Incidentally, as per GPRAMA, it would be good if the agendas for major conferences were rendered as performance plans, in open, standard, machine-readable format.

Thu, Feb 28, 2013

Some of the fruit being borne is bitter and poisonous. The Federal workforce is being restricted in its ability to increase its knowledge and capabilities, and ultimately to incease productivity in serving its customers - the citizens of this country. While some common sense reform may have been necessary, the pecuniary savings resulting from gross overreaction sought by a narrow minded Congress will be far outweighed by losses due to foregone opportunities increase the effectiveness of the workforce, and the added cost of chasing pennies through unnecessary brueaucratic processes.

Thu, Feb 28, 2013

Proof that, yes the Government can cut spending. This amout of savings, from just this one action in one organization, saved enough money to pay off the proposed fuloughs of 3,000 people. Just think of the savings if this was Government wide and looked at all sorts of other wasteful spending. For one there would not be the need for furlough-creating cuts. Obviously, this administration could have started on something like this over a year ago to avoid sequestration. But politics is not about making sensible decisions and this administration is all about politics.

Thu, Feb 28, 2013

There is no question that more controls and visibility into travel and conference spending is good for the government and the taxpayer. However, no one is measuring the costs of the checker checking the checker checking the checker. No one has mapped out the processes and analyzed the resource investment associated with the processes -- so, no one should be fooled by the publicized cost avoidance numbers. They are not an accurate measure of the benefits achieved by GSA through the now-implemented, over-the-top, control mechanisms. The cycle time for approvals to be completed is extremely long, rivaling the manual processes that were in place in the govt in the 1970's. Most of the savings probably reflect the elimination of travel requests and conference participation by employees who simply do not want to deal with onerous processes. Rush Holt is right on! Without face to face engagement for critical pieces of work, outcomes decline in quality, solutions to problems become mediocre, and workers detach themselves from results because they know that, with a little more flexibility in process and decision authority, they could produce much better results. The incentive to engage and deliver excellence is lost in the shuffle of paperwork and an environment where pay is frozen, performance awards are sad, all major program or business areas are undergoing massive realignment, empowerment is absent, and the entire metro area GSA workforce is about to move into a dirty, old, half renovated building where there will be be less than one desk for every three people. What a fine scenario for collaboration, innovation and incentive to go the extra mile.

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