Federal travel and conference spending is predictably tanking under the combined pressures of severe budget cuts and the repercussions of a string of high-profile conference scandals that started in April 2012.
The scandals — embarrassingly lavish conference events held by the General Services Administration, the Veterans Affairs Department and the IRS that were brought to light by inspectors general investigations — provoked a quick and harsh response from Congess and the White House. Travel and conference activity across government slowed to a trickle within weeks.
The result: Travel spending last year fell 6 percent. This fiscal year (through July), the annual drop is almost three times that figure — 17 percent.
In today’s severe budget climate, it is hard to imagine travel and conference spending rebounding anytime soon. The question is: Should it?
The answer should depend on three factors.
One is the relative size of the federal and contractor workforce once the current drawdown plays itself out. Fewer employees means less required travel.
Another factor is the required skill sets of the future federal workforce and the evolving nature of federal missions. As employees become ever-more specialized and technology-oriented, the need for more frequent training and education is likely to increase. Similarly, as federal missions become more complex, requiring greater coordination with various stakeholders, the need for more collaboration and meetings increases.
The third factor is technology. As virtual training and meeting technologies become more reliable and effective, the need for travel and conferences should decline. Today, however, those technologies only go so far in replacing face-to-face interactions.
But it is troubling that decisions governing travel and conferences have little to do with these factors and mostly to do with one overriding factor: budget realities. Travel and conference budgets represent an easy mark for quick savings that yield little noticeable impact in the near term.
Yes, there was — and likely still is — room to cut back on travel and conferences. The problem is, if those cuts are indiscriminate, carry on long enough, and go steep enough, the impact will grow. As with any large, complex organization, travel and face-to-face interactions are vital ingredients to effectiveness and a healthy workforce.
There will be a steep price to be paid in terms of mission effectiveness, skills development and employee retention if travel and conference budgets continue to be raided for quick savings. Policymakers must use sound planning and judgment to decide how far is too far.