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Federal Eye
Posted at 01:15 PM ET, 04/06/2012

Federal Buzz: Was the GSA Western states conference the exception or the norm?

By now you’re probably familiar with the “over-the-top” Las Vegas conference that prompted an investigation by the GSA’s inspector general and the resignation of its administrator, Martha Johnson.
GSA video capture from Las Vegas Conference. (Screen Capture from Video)

This week, the Federal Eye, with our partners at GovLoop, asked federal workers to tell us whether conferences such as the now-infamous GSA Western states one are the norm or the exception, to share their experiences at government events, and say whether or not they encountered excessive spending. The consensus was that the GSA event was well out of the norm of what happens at most government conferences.

Here’s how they responded:

“As a small business, we worked closely with GSA over a dozen years in producing executive conferences. In every case, care was given to maintain appropriate and moderate accommodations and meals. GSA management was focused on cost containment, even though the events were produced as ‘no cost to government’ model. The report from the IG reflects business practices that are, in our experience, well out of the norm.”

Peg Hosky, President at Hosky Communications

“In regards to government events and conferences, the GSA event couldn’t be further from my experience while in the government. I was recently on the planning committee for an offsite conference for a branch of my federal agency. Due to austerity measures and agency wide rules, we were not even allowed to provide bottles of water. I get frustrated that transgressions like the GSA event make all federal workers look bad when the majority of us are paying hefty prices to attend holiday parties and packing our lunches to go to offsite conferences.”

Janna Raudenbush, Public Affairs Specialist for the Office of Inspector General at Health and Human Services

“With over 35 years in the government, at more than six agencies, I have been to a few training conferences but nothing like the GSA Western Region Conference. I even spent two tours at GSA; one from 1978 – 88 and then again from 2000-04, both times highest grade was GS-12. The first time only the high rollers went to offsites, usually Lake Geneva, as we were Region 5 and it was close with good golf. The second tour PBS would have meetings around the region each year, maybe 25-30 people, but no big blowout parties –at least not that I was invited to.”

Former GSA employee

“I attend biannual conferences for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The conferences are modest.

“Usually HUD provides a breakfast buffet in the hallway outside our meeting. It would cost more to pay meal money. I imagine that they buy 30 breakfasts for less than $250. We negotiate government rates on hotels. Instead of staying in downtown D.C., we stay in Alexandria. We don’t have any entertainment. We have to pay if we want to have Internet in our rooms.

“Let’s just say that it’s clear that they are cutting costs.”

— Adam Rust, member of Manufactured Housing Consensus Committee

“Let’s not limit it to training conferences but rather seasonal congressional junkets of Republican and Democratic lawmakers who arrive in foreign countries in glistening military aircraft with military aides and handlers who look to the U.S. Embassy to host lavish receptions, dinners and lunches and squire them around town for days — sometimes a week, with cost no question. The junket handlers assume all the costs (the embassy is always broke) and the travelers are always a blend of both parties, so no one spills the beans. It’s a scandal everyone knows about but everyone ignores. With budgets always in mind, the Pentagon is the big enabler here and State, as usual, is bullied into silence, a role it seems to enjoy. Each trip must cost hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, the cheap ones anyway, easily millions for Rome, Paris.”

— Former foreign service officer

“I haven’t been to a conference in several years. The seminars or workshops I’ve attended haven’t been opulent or at hotels that appeared too expensive. I can’t speak for other agencies, but mine has taken conference management seriously to prevent abuses such as the one GSA conducted in Las Vegas. Please don’t paint all agencies with this GSA brush, even in an election year.”

Federal employee of the Western Area Power Administration

“The article on GSA’s conference stated the brass stayed in penthouse suites but failed to mention that they probably didn’t pay for penthouse suites. Hotels often stroke the egos of the government guests with ‘comps’ (e.g., lower room rates, courtesy limousines, complimentary drinks) because happy customers equal repeat business. Although every contract with a hotel follows strict, detailed federal regulations, the contract officer with a flexible vocabulary has the advantage. Seriously, who would question the health benefits of a good ‘spiritus frumenti’ or deny the boss’s need for a ‘demimonde’ as the subject matter expert?!!”

Don Coleman, Falls Church, (retired) training director, contracts and acquisitions, Department of Veterans’ Affairs

You can read more responses from the community on GovLoop.com here.

We’re also following up responses to our Federal Buzz question from last week: What would happen if you walked into your office and found that 10 percent of your co-workers had disappeared?

The House of Representatives recently passed a budget that would continue a freeze on federal employee pay and cut the federal workforce by 10 percent. As Eric Yoder reported, only one new employee would be hired for every three that leave.

Here’s how GovLoop members and Washington Post readers responded to that proposal.

“It would probably not have as much of an impact as the headline indicates, but I suspect that if it ever gets into law, that there will be enough waivers that the number will probably be a lot lower.”

Henry Brown, retired federal employee

“I went through many layoffs in private sector. Sometimes I was hit in first wave and sometimes later. Personally found it more stressful getting left behind than getting laid off because you still had that hammer hanging over your head and you had to watch friends and colleagues leaving. I work for the Park Service and we don’t have huge budgets to begin with. My organization has a handful of key personnel paid from operating funds. Losing one of those people would have a huge impact on our program. The rest are terms and seasonals, paid from grants, donations, and special funding sources.”

Janina Rey Echols Harrison, budget analyst, National Park Service

“ I work as a member of a facility operations team and our focus is maximizing the potential of the built environment so that the occupants can work more efficiently and comfortably. The greatest difficulty in losing a member of our team would be rebuilding relationships with our customers. When a colleague specializes in dealing with a particular aspect of the facility or with a specific section of the organization, it is challenging to maintain a positive level of trust with the clients.”

— John Lucien Grillo, CFM, FMP, facility operations specialist, Library of Congress

“A 10 percent staff reduction would require those that depend on others to actually be required to work. Management levels would possibly have to change from having so many different levels to flattening the government and having functions performed by all capable employees.”

– DHS/FEMA employee

“It would be demoralizing and detrimental to national security due to lack of federal oversight.”

– Jeff Williams, NNSA

Want to weigh in on the shrinking federal workforce, or how government conferences operate in your experience? Tell us on Twitter using the hashtag #FedBuzz

By and Corey McCarren  |  01:15 PM ET, 04/06/2012

Tags:  Federal Buzz

 
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