Travel funding is always among the first casualties of budget cuts. Get caught in a couple of embarrassing travel-related scandals during budget cuts, and spending is sure to evaporate faster than an ice cube on a summer sidewalk.
Suddenly, close oversight is the order of the day:
After General Services Administration executives got nailed this year for lavish overspending at a 2010 Las Vegas conference, the government raced to adopt tighter travel rules.
In June, the Pentagon halted all new large-scale conferences and travel spending and required high-level review of any conference, trade show or other event costing $100,000 or more to attend.
In August, GSA froze current per diem rates to cut travel spending.
Also over the summer, the administration ordered cuts to travel budgets and banned agencies from spending more than $500,000 on individual conferences except under unusual circumstances.
Last week’s revelations that the Veterans Affairs Department blew $762,000 on unauthorized and wasteful expenses during two Florida conferences will surely bring additional pressure and scrutiny on travel spending.
The crackdown is necessary and overdue. There has been waste and mismanagement of taxpayer travel and conference spending that is inexcusable and must be halted in its tracks. Managers must rethink how and why they authorize travel and conduct conferences. But managers also must take care not to allow the politics of the moment to squelch reasonable and responsible travel and conferences.
At the Defense Department, just moving one general and his staff to an event can cost $100,000 — the Pentagon’s new threshold on what is allowable. The tighter rules at DoD will surely deal a blow to trade shows that justify their existence by putting executives and defense leaders in the same room.
Trade shows and other professional gatherings are a remarkably economical way of getting folks together in one place to get a lot done in a short time, whether it is exchanging ideas on solutions to pressing challenges or offering professional development training.
In an era of fiscal austerity, the need to communicate and exchange ideas is going up, not down.
One way to reduce trade show costs is to follow the Marine Corps’ lead — hold the show on a military base, not at a swanky hotel or conference center.
Conferences in the future also must routinely include a large virtual component, to enable feds and other interested parties to join in via the Internet if they cannot attend.
No longer can federally sponsored conferences be viewed as “signature events” — as were the VA conferences held in Orlando that were the target of the latest inspector general’s report. They must be no-frills events aimed at sharing important information in the most cost-effective way possible.