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GSA, OMB credit IT for conference savings

bills with tight belt

Top officials from the Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration told lawmakers Jan. 14 that they are making progress in cutting conference and travel spending after the 2012 scandal that revealed millions spent on lavish government meetings.

OMB Deputy Director for Management Beth Cobert and GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini pointed to online tracking tools, virtual and videoconferencing, webinars and other digital options as measures that have been instituted to save taxpayers billions of dollars.

The new approaches have also improved transparency and collaboration among agencies, the officials told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

"We used the attention brought to this matter and the mistakes that were made" -- in particular an $800,000 GSA training conference in Las Vegas in 2010 -- to "do a top-to-bottom review of the agency," Tangherlini said.

GSA's E-Gov Travel Service, enhanced IT tools such as videoconferencing, spending caps and the cancellation of some events have reduced government travel costs by $3 billion since 2010, Cobert said in her testimony.

"There's a lesson to be learned on how to apply technology," she added.

Tangherlini said guidelines such as the $500,000 spending cap on conferences, with certain exceptions, are proving effective, and Cobert agreed. Even so, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the committee's ranking member, reiterated his calls for new legislation to strengthen the guidelines.

Other committee members asked Cobert and Tangherlini whether they believed new laws are needed, but neither gave an affirmative answer. Cobert stressed satisfaction with the guidelines OMB has put in place and cited specific savings in the past year, including $181 million at the Treasury Department, $99 million at the Interior Department and $35 million at the Environmental Protection Agency.

"We continue to see progress, and we're very heartened about that," Cobert said. "We think that the administrative rulings we've put in place will drive those changes in behavior over the long term and also provide enough flexibility to make sure the guidelines we've put in place are neither too stringent [nor] too lenient as opportunities arise -- for example, to use technology where there are good substitutes for people being there in person."

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.

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