So What Does an $823,000 Conference Buy You?

Lavish spending habits at the General Services Administration (GSA) could end up severely restricting the education activities of professional societies, trade associations and other nonprofit organizations.

GSA’s infamous Las Vegas blowout turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg, prompting public outrage, a host of legislative proposals and a clampdown on conferences and travel by the Obama administration. Although touted as transparency and accountability, which many can support, these efforts may actually impede the interaction between citizens and their government. Last year the Executive Branch released rules limiting federal workers’ ability to attend meetings hosted by certain organizations. Although the rules exempted educational meetings hosted by nonprofit organizations, in light of the GSA scandal some federal employees’ travel requests to attend annual educational meetings and scientific symposia are being rejected out of hand—without any thought given to value and appropriateness. This is being done on an agency-by-agency basis, but is something that all organizations that are regularly in contact with federal agencies or whose members are affected by rules and regulations coming out of the federal government should know about.

Also, in April, both the House and Senate passed legislation restricting government employees from attending conferences and meetings, with a few exceptions. Each year professional societies and others hold annual meetings, and often these meetings need to take place at locations that can accommodate large numbers. Often members of these societies happen to be employees of the federal government, or are invited to present to membership on new federal rules and regulations, new and exciting developments at federal agencies, or ways in which the government can collaborate with these organizations to further mutual goals.

The American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) has taken the lead in the effort to ensure that these provisions are tweaked so that government employees are able to attend conferences for educational purposes. They note that “however well-intentioned, the provisions . . . have broad implications for associations and other non-governmental organizations that invite government employees to give presentations or attend their conferences. Without modifications, the provisions could discourage government attendance at educational conferences and hinder the necessary interchange between government and the private sector.”

Another issue of note related to travel is a May 11, 2012, OMB memorandum to all department and agency heads, directing that in FY2013 travel costs should be reduced by 30 percent below FY2010 levels. It goes on to outline new policies and practices regarding conference sponsorship, hosting and attendance.

Few would argue that something had to be done to avoid the abuses exemplified by GSA’s pricey Las Vegas conference. Transparency and accountability to the taxpayers are important principles and need to be practiced by the federal government. But arbitrarily limiting federal employees’ ability to further their knowledge and interact with others in their field will eventually hinder innovation and more efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

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