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After scandal, GSA conference sets clear theme: conspicuous austerity

May. 15, 2012 - 04:49PM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments

SAN ANTONIO — When it comes to throwing conferences, the General Services Administration has conspicuously downshifted.

Goodbye, “over the top.” Goodbye, mind readers.

Hello, box lunches.

Whereas the now-notorious 2010 Western Regions Conference in Las Vegas cost $823,000 for 300 staffers, this week’s 2012 GSA Training Conference and Expo here will cost $1 million for 357 GSA employees and 6,000 vendors, industry representatives and other federal employees.

The clear theme of this conference: No more monkey business.

The GSA Expo this year is “focused squarely on training,” said acting GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini in a video played for conference attendees Tuesday. Tangherlini was installed as the new head of GSA last month after the previous administrator, Martha Johnson, and other top agency leaders were forced out in the wake of an inspector general’s report that detailed widespread waste and questionable spending by the agency in 2010 and 2011.

“In this time of fiscal austerity and budget uncertainty, the role of the GSA and the expertise of our contracting officers have never been more vital,” Tangherlini said.

Another sign of the times: handouts for all attendees spelling out ethics tips. (In summary, federal employees should not accept cash, gift cards or gifts valued at more than $20, and they should file travel expenses promptly after the conference.)

And another reminder: signs at each of the lunch tables reminding federal employees to count the $16 lunch toward their meal per diem.

Hot lunch buffets have been replaced by boxed lunches of pre-wrapped roast beef sandwiches and potato chips (plus a cookie and apple). Dinner receptions have been replaced with panel discussions.

Even the traditional ice cream social and reception dinner that GSA sponsors on the first day of the annual Expo event was scrapped. And GSA employee attendance was pared down from about 800 to 357, said GSA spokeswoman Cara Battaglini.

“We wanted to make sure attendees feel comfortable and beyond reproach,” Battaglini said. “Because of the climate, it was important to make sure everyone was here to focus on training and to make sure no one thinks they may show up in an IG report down the road.”

GSA even looked into the option of cancelling this year’s Expo after the scandal. But doing so would have cost the agency about $3 million, according to Battaglini. The Expo is planned about four years in advance, with next year’s slated for Orlando, Fla.

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