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Travel spending drops 18 percent in 2013

2014 looks to be even lower

Feb. 4, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments
Attendees line up to enter GSA Expo 2010, which was held in Orlando, Fla.
Attendees line up to enter GSA Expo 2010, which was held in Orlando, Fla. (GSA)

Federal travel spending fell 18 percent from fiscal 2012 to 2013 — from $8.5 billion to about $6.9 billion — and 2014 is shaping up to see even deeper cuts, according to federal data.

Travel spending in fiscal 2014 is already down about 33 percent from the same time last year at $890 million, compared to $1.3 billion, as measured by data from the General Services Administration’s SmartPay charge card program, which covers more than 2.5 million card holders across the government.

As examples of the cutbacks, GSA has canceled, for the second year, its annual Expo conference and has transitioned its SmartPay training forum into a virtual format, citing continued low levels of spending on travels and conferences.

Frank Benenati, spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, said part of the drop can be attributed to agencies rethinking how and where to have conferences and by using technology to reduce the need for travel. “Agencies will continue to identify savings moving forward, while balancing the need for conferences and travel,” Benenati said.

Sequestration played a role as well, he acknowledged. However, the administration has taken steps to reduce unnecessary travel spending, but it is important to recognize the critical role that conferences and federal travel play in conducting federal business, he said.

“Moving forward, we are continuing to sharpen our understanding of the value of travel and conference attendance to mission critical departmental activities and the opportunities to reduce expenditures, as they are central to continued good stewardship of the taxpayer dollar,” he said.

In May 2012, OMB released a memo directing agencies to reduce travel spending by 30 percent compared with 2010 levels and to maintain those levels through 2016. Agencies also have to report annually on any conference spending in excess of $100,000, and employees must seek senior management approval for conference spending.

Government funding legislation passed in January codified the rules into law and required agencies to notify their inspectors general of any conference that costs more than $20,000 and provide the IG with details of the conference.

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The General Services Administration saw the biggest percentage drop of any agency, where travel spending fell 57 percent — from $14 million to $6.4 million in 2013 — partly because of strict new controls put in place in 2012.

The Defense Department saw travel spending fall by more than $1 billion from fiscal 2012 to 2013 — a drop of almost 19 percent — because of a combination of travel restrictions and expanded use of teleconferencing, according to the Defense Department.

Spokesman Nathan Christensen said DoD also increased its internal controls to review vouchers for valid travel spending and automated more of its training programs so that workplace education can be done on site.

He added employees will still be able to travel when required to obtain needed training or accomplish DoD objectives but that continued budget cuts will mean DoD will continue with strict oversight of travel expenditures.

Rick Singer, the executive director of the Society of Government Travel Professionals, said he was not surprised by the dip in fiscal 2014 spending caused by the government shutdown but that spending does appear to be leveling off.

He said increased reporting requirements may also serve as a continued drag on federal travel spending, which he expects to be flat

“Congress continues to require more transparency and accountability in regards to conference spending, which may cause agencies to restrict conference travel until they sort how to comply,” Singer said.

Scott Lamb, director of government sales for Hilton Hotels, said OMB travel restrictions and tight budgets will push federal officials to look very carefully at all travel spending in 2014 — keeping travel spending flat.

He said the hotel industry is looking at expanding into other areas to offset continued federal travel cuts as well as for ways to get as much of the remaining federal business as possible. ■

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