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Federal Conferences and Business Intelligence

Originally published April 16, 2013

It has been a year since the GSA “scandal” over excesses at a Public Building Service (PBS) conference in Las Vegas forced the resignation of GSA Administrator Martha Johnson, and the sacking of PBS Commissioner Bob Peck. First the press had its heyday with the “clown, the mind reader and the $4 shrimp” at that event, and then Congress stepped in with its inquisition of GSA and other federal executives.

That was the start of a major investigatory process that resulted not only in the demise of several public servants, deservedly or not, and the revelation of a series of other conferences that were deemed also to have featured out-of-line spending. As a result, the last twelve months have seen not only the cancellation of a string of federal meetings and events, but also a real soul-searching about the role of such conferences.

Shortly after the GSA exposé in April 2012, another investigation revealed that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) had spent more than $5 million on two conferences in Orlando. It was, as at GSA, an Inspector General’s report that brought out that the VA had spent $6.1 million on two conferences in Orlando, Florida, during July and August 2011. About $762,000 was spent on “unauthorized,” “unnecessary” or “wasteful” expenses, said the IG report. As with the GSA conference, there seemed to be much attention on the $50,000 paid to an actor playing Gen. Patton. The upshot of this incident was that a number of VA conferences were cancelled, and the VA assistant secretary for human resources, John Sepulveda, resigned.

Not even the military could escape attention. Bloomberg News duly reported that the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) had spent $10.7 million on their 2010 conference and $10.6 million in 2011, and they estimated that “… each Army conference cost roughly 13 times as much as GSA’s $823,000 conference.

In that atmosphere of cross-examinations, cost cutting and Congressional investigations, the White House requested agencies to cut down conference spending by 30%. All of a sudden, conference scheduling, participation and budgets were elevated to the Cabinet level, forcing a conference manager to quip: “You would think that (Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton has more important things to do than approve a four-day meeting with 500 attendees.” 

In addition, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a series of directives mandating all agencies to review their conference policies and that a senior agency official approves any spending above $100,000. Furthermore, OMB prohibited any agency from spending over $500,000 on a single conference.

The effects have been substantial. By August 2012, GSA had canceled 47 conferences resulting in a reduction of $11 million in spending since April. The Labor Department announced plans to eliminate 100 conferences, the Army and the Department of Defense cancelled a good number of events – including their annual procurement conference, in May, with 1,600 expected attendees – and many other agencies were following suit with their own conference-cutting plans.

The problem is that all these actions were taken with little understanding of what impact it may have on the federal workforce or the workings of government in general. Furthermore, no one can truly answer the question of what best practices are for federal conferences or even what the cost of a shrimp or a cup of coffee should really be at a conference.

First, there are a number of benefits that accrue from actual conferences. In January 2013, Andrew Krzmarzick posted some fairly important observations in govloop under the heading “How Do We Make In-Person Conferences Cool Again?”

He starts by stating his belief that “conferences have always been the social glue that holds us together as a workforce,” and that “When they're taken away, we all lose something special and significant.”

He points out a series of functions that conferences contribute to in the life, growth and development of professionals: a) camaraderie with colleagues; b) commiseration with people experiencing similar problems; c) connections with new individuals and new insights; and d) credible learning opportunities with experts and peers.

Krzmarzick suggests these events provide energy, deliver important insights and are critical to success. Their absence may be contributing to low morale in the federal workforce, he further adds, and then goes on to request ideas from his readers as how to make them “cool again.”

But, again, we cannot truly answer so many of these questions unless we are able to obtain substantive business intelligence about such events. We suggested as much in our April 2012 article by saying that “we need to do better analysis of how we plan, execute and manage events and tie them to outcomes in performance.” We recommended that Government “…be frugal, but also be careful not to take reactive short-term actions that might prove to be misguided in the long term.”

In my opinion, we are there. We can point to the dollars that we saved in cancelling hundreds of events in the last year, but we cannot quantify what we have lost by not holding many of these conferences.

In the same way that federal acquisition experts have developed realistic labor estimates by job categories, based on extensive research, that they apply in government procurements, there should be equivalent tables of all major features and components of conferences.

These should be based on the capture of such information from historical events and their analysis ex post facto. This would allow the objective determination of whether a $4 shrimp or a $16 muffin is an outrage, wasteful or purely in keeping with the value provided in the broader delivery of a service. Furthermore, by having this business intelligence, government agencies will obtain substantially more leverage in negotiating prices with hotels, caterers, event planners and convention centers.

GSA, the origin for this latest round of pain, as we noted in our first paragraph, may be stepping up to the plate with a least the start toward an answer. In February they announced a new potential offering for a “consolidated meetings management solution” that would “… help centralize agencies’ conference and meeting spending in unified databases, ensure competitive pricing for conference-related purchases, minimize the risk of cancellation fees from hotels and food vendors and archive important information to pass along to GSA.”

As all things related to government procurement, they tend to be slow and cumbersome. This initiative was in the form of a Request for Information (RFI) to interested vendors from industry to comment on the government’s requirement. If the government likes what it receives, it is likely that “meetings management” will become a separate item on the GSA Schedule 599 for Travel Services Solutions. (A schedule is a pre-approved list of products and/or services from which any government agency can buy because the suppliers have been vetted and the prices have already been negotiated.) 

Responses to the RFI were due on March 6, and there is no date for an actual request for proposal, or even a guarantee that one will ever be issued. That said, there is at least positive action in the right direction on this matter. And this is clearly good progress.

In a world that is increasingly virtual, face-to-face events that are real are an important complement for the conduct of business. Let’s start to determine what constitutes best practices through improved analytics and business intelligence.

  • Dr. Ramon BarquinDr. Ramon Barquin

    Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

    He had a long career in IBM with over 20 years covering both technical assignments and corporate management, including overseas postings and responsibilities. Afterwards he served as president of the Washington Consulting Group, where he had direct oversight for major U.S. Federal Government contracts.

    Dr. Barquin was elected a National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) Fellow in 2012. He serves on the Cybersecurity Subcommittee of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee; is a Board Member of the Center for Internet Security and a member of the Steering Committee for the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council’s (ACT-IAC) Quadrennial Government Technology Review Committee. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. 

    Dr. Barquin can be reached at rbarquin@barquin.com.

    Editor's note: More articles from Dr. Barquin are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel


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