OMB Clarifies Travel and Conference Attendance Policies

Photo of Allan Rubinby Allan Rubin, Vice President, Marketing

The GSA conference scandal has crept back into the news as the IRS has encountered its own high-profile spending scrutiny. So I found it noteworthy when this item crossed my desk today.

The Office of Management and Budget just issued a “Controller Alert” to all Federal agencies, acknowledging the need for Federal employees to attend mission-related conferences and outlining recommendations, including best practices for approving travel and conference expenses. The document adopts many of the measures suggested in a meetings protocol provided by ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership, which met with OMB in March. You can find the entire document on the ASAE Web site.

To be clear, the Alert states it does NOT “constitute official guidance or include specific tasks for agencies beyond consideration of appropriate steps to address the issue” of travel and conference spending. It certainly reinforces many of the restrictions we’ve seen over the past 18 months, but it also provides what may be some wiggle room for the post-Sequestration world. That’s how I read statements like this:

“As each agency reviews its travel and conference-related activities, it is critical for each agency to continue to recognize the important role that mission-related travel and conferences can often play in Government operations. Given the unique travel and conference needs of each agency, there are circumstances in which physical collocation is necessary to complete the mission.”

And this:

“…bringing together Federal employees at a single location—such as for program reviews or technical evaluations, presentation of scientific findings, oversight boards or advisory group meetings, …may be the most efficient and cost-effective means for reviewing Government-sponsored efforts, issues, or challenges. Several agencies rely on meetings with industry and academic colleagues to drive innovation and ensure continued advancement in related fields.”

There is, of course this reality: while an agency should not interpret the recent guidance “as a moratorium on all conference events, agencies and related stakeholders should anticipate a continued reduction in conference and travel activity for the duration of the sequestration order.” And to make sure nobody’s having any fun at taxpayer expense, the Alert reminds readers that “events should not include excessive or lavish social components.”

The Alert makes clear that each agency is responsible for implementing its own internal travel and conference policies, and each agency needs to achieve the right balance between reducing spending and meeting mission-critical needs. It encourages agencies to start conference planning by examining whether “physical collocation of Federal employees in a conference setting is a necessary and cost-effective means to carry out the agency’s mission (and that other, lower-cost options, such as videoconferencing, have been explored).” To me, this points to a likely boost in future attendance at, and acceptance of, virtual engagements both within and outside of the agency environment.

Similarly, it makes a distinction between conferences and training events, stating that conferences “should not be considered training events absent a written justification by an appropriate official that specifies the learning objectives and mission or job performance outcomes.”  It further clarifies that “professional training may include Continuing Education Units (CEUs) or Professional Development Units (PDUs) for areas that are relevant and valuable to the job function of the individual employee and that contribute to maintaining professional accreditation or certification.” Takeaway: don’t expect to slap the word “training” on your marketing event and think you’ve covered your bases.

A lot of this is old news, and it remains to be seen whether the IRS spending scandal (as opposed to the IRS political scandal) will result in even tighter restrictions or if there’s not much left to tighten. I’m already hearing that government employees are starving for information and interactions that will help them do their jobs. So what should you do next?

  1. Consider whether virtual events have a place in your marketing arsenal. Try something new.
  2. Align your marketing activities with events that offer real training for government attendees.
  3. Keep an eye on what happens next based on the IRS fallout.

Maybe I’m optimistic, but we may be seeing some cracks in the armor. As always, I welcome your comments.

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