Selected Federal Agencies' Policies for Choosing Conference Locations

Gao ID: GAO-10-677R June 10, 2010

Press accounts in 2009 indicated that some federal agencies had issued directives to their staff discouraging them from choosing certain locations for conferences. This was because of the perception by some that the locations were resort areas and would not be the best use of taxpayers' money. Noting that government travel for meetings, conferences, and seminars is an important source of economic activity for many communities throughout the United States, Congress asked us to review agencies' policies for selecting conference locations, in view of these concerns.

Conference planning at the 10 departments and 2 agencies we reviewed is a decentralized activity that is typically performed at the bureau or component level, below the agencywide level. Budgetary considerations largely influence the agencies' conference location selections. For example, officials from most of the agencies we reviewed explained that after identifying locations that meet the requirements of a particular conference, such as the capacity for large numbers of attendees, the comparative cost of locations was the key criterion used for selecting a conference location. Eight of the 12 agencies that we reviewed had developed agencywide policies for conference planning; these policies were consistent with the governmentwide policy on conference planning in the Federal Travel Regulation (FTR), and specified that conference locations be selected on the basis of cost-effectiveness. The other 4 agencies either allowed bureaus and components to develop their own policies, were in the process of developing agencywide policies, or conducted agency level review and approval of conferences that were proposed at the bureau or component level. While cost-effectiveness is the principal criterion and the selection of resort locations is not prohibited among the agencywide policies we reviewed, three agencies had policies that mentioned resort locations. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) policies currently state that the selection of resort locations for conferences and meetings is discouraged and should be minimized. USDA officials said they are in the process of revising their regulations to clarify and strengthen conference and training location selection. Similarly, the Department of Health and Human Services policies state that meeting sponsors should not hold meetings at resort areas unless that area is the location best suited for the purpose of the meeting in terms of program needs and cost factors. The Department of Justice (DOJ) policies require additional justification for conferences and meetings held in resort locations. DOJ officials said that, consistent with FTR and DOJ policies, they will continue to follow this policy to ensure that conference locations provide the best value for the government. One of the 12 agencies we reviewed, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), reported moving a conference from a resort area to another location in 2009 to avoid potential negative perceptions associated with holding a government conference in a resort location. However, VA officials said managers recognize that resort locations may, in some cases, offer more cost-effective alternatives to other locations and rely on cost comparisons to determine conference locations.



GAO-10-677R, Selected Federal Agencies' Policies for Choosing Conference Locations This is the accessible text file for GAO report number GAO-10-677R entitled 'Selected Federal Agencies' Policies for Choosing Conference Locations' which was released on June 10, 2010. This text file was formatted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to be accessible to users with visual impairments, as part of a longer term project to improve GAO products' accessibility. Every attempt has been made to maintain the structural and data integrity of the original printed product. Accessibility features, such as text descriptions of tables, consecutively numbered footnotes placed at the end of the file, and the text of agency comment letters, are provided but may not exactly duplicate the presentation or format of the printed version. The portable document format (PDF) file is an exact electronic replica of the printed version. We welcome your feedback. Please E-mail your comments regarding the contents or accessibility features of this document to Webmaster@gao.gov. This is a work of the U.S. government and is not subject to copyright protection in the United States. It may be reproduced and distributed in its entirety without further permission from GAO. Because this work may contain copyrighted images or other material, permission from the copyright holder may be necessary if you wish to reproduce this material separately. GAO-10-677R: United States Government Accountability Office: Washington, DC 20548: June 10, 2010: Congressional Requesters: Subject: Selected Federal Agencies' Policies for Choosing Conference Locations: Press accounts in 2009 indicated that some federal agencies had issued directives to their staff discouraging them from choosing certain locations for conferences. This was because of the perception by some that the locations were resort areas and would not be the best use of taxpayers' money. Noting that government travel for meetings, conferences, and seminars is an important source of economic activity for many communities throughout the United States, you asked us to review agencies' policies for selecting conference locations, in view of these concerns. This letter transmits the results of our work which are contained in Enclosure I. Summary: Conference planning at the 10 departments and 2 agencies[Footnote 1] we reviewed is a decentralized activity that is typically performed at the bureau or component level, below the agencywide level. Budgetary considerations largely influence the agencies' conference location selections. For example, officials from most of the agencies we reviewed explained that after identifying locations that meet the requirements of a particular conference, such as the capacity for large numbers of attendees, the comparative cost of locations was the key criterion used for selecting a conference location. Eight of the 12 agencies that we reviewed had developed agencywide policies for conference planning; these policies were consistent with the governmentwide policy on conference planning in the Federal Travel Regulation (FTR)[Footnote 2], and specified that conference locations be selected on the basis of cost-effectiveness. The other 4 agencies either allowed bureaus and components to develop their own policies, were in the process of developing agencywide policies, or conducted agency level review and approval of conferences that were proposed at the bureau or component level. While cost-effectiveness is the principal criterion and the selection of resort locations is not prohibited among the agencywide policies we reviewed, three agencies had policies that mentioned resort locations. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) policies currently state that the selection of resort locations for conferences and meetings is discouraged and should be minimized. USDA officials said they are in the process of revising their regulations to clarify and strengthen conference and training location selection. Similarly, the Department of Health and Human Service policies state that meeting sponsors should not hold meetings at resort areas unless that area is the location best suited for the purpose of the meeting in terms of program needs and cost factors. The Department of Justice (DOJ) policies require additional justification for conferences and meetings held in resort locations. DOJ officials said that, consistent with FTR and DOJ policies, they will continue to follow this policy to ensure that conference locations provide the best value for the government. One of the 12 agencies we reviewed, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), reported moving a conference from a resort area to another location in 2009 to avoid potential negative perceptions associated with holding a government conference in a resort location. However, VA officials said managers recognize that resort locations may, in some cases, offer more cost-effective alternatives to other locations and rely on cost comparisons to determine conference locations. Scope and Methodology: We reviewed available agencywide conference planning policies and interviewed officials from the 10 largest cabinet-level departments in terms of employees, and two agencies--the General Services Administration and the Social Security Administration. The 10 largest cabinet level agencies include the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Interior, Justice, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs. We selected the Social Security Administration because it is the largest independent agency in terms of employees and we selected the General Services Administration because it promulgates the FTR, the governmentwide travel policy. We analyzed the extent to which the agencywide conference planning policies of the 8 agencies that had such policies were consistent with the FTR. We contacted the Inspector Generals from the agencies to identify any work they had done relating to conference planning, and we contacted GAO's FraudNet and determined that no complaints had been filed relating to this issue. We also identified the Interagency Travel Management Committee as the only governmentwide group knowledgeable about agency travel policies. We administered a questionnaire to the 175 federal travel managers associated with this group as part of our effort to determine if unwritten, informal directives or guidance relating to the choice of location had been issued to agency conference planners. All of the 22 travel managers who responded to our questionnaire indicated that they were not aware of any unwritten, informal directives or guidance relating to the choice of conference locations at their agency.[Footnote 3] We considered, but did not conduct, case studies of individual conferences because the only practical methodology of selecting conferences would not have enabled generalizable results. We conducted this performance audit from August 2009 to May 2010, in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe that the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. Agency Comments: We provided a draft of this letter to the 12 agencies we analyzed for their review and comment. Ten agencies notified us that they did not have any comments on our letter. One agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs, provided written comments that are reproduced in Enclosure II. The Department of Veterans Affairs did not agree or disagree with our letter but noted that in some cases cost analysis may show that a resort location can offer a better value than other locations for conferences. One agency, the Department of Defense, did not provide us with comments in time for the issuance of this letter. We are sending copies of this letter to the heads of the 12 agencies we reviewed and other interested congressional committees. In addition, this letter will be available at no charge on GAO's Web site at [hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov]. If you or your staff has any questions concerning our results, please contact me at (214) 777-5719 or stjamesl@gao.gov. Contact points for our Offices of Congressional Relations and Public Affairs may be found on the last page of this letter. Principal contributors to this project were Maria D. Edelstein, Assistant Director; Lindsay M. Bach; Lisa G. Shibata; H. Brandon Haller; Colin Fallon; and Kathleen A. Gilhooly. Signed by: Lorelei St. James: Acting Director: Physical Infrastructure: Enclosures - 2: List of Requesters: The Honorable John L. Mica: Ranking Member: Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure: House of Representatives: The Honorable Shelley Berkley: House of Representatives: The Honorable Corrine Brown: House of Representatives: The Honorable Lincoln Diaz-Balart: House of Representatives: The Honorable Alan Grayson: House of Representatives: The Honorable Dean Heller: House of Representatives: The Honorable Suzanne Kosmas: House of Representatives: The Honorable Bill Posey: House of Representatives: The Honorable Dina Titus: House of Representatives: Enclosure 1: Briefing to Staff for the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and Others: May 2010: Selected Federal Agencies' Policies for Choosing Conference Locations: Introduction: Federal departments and agencies[Footnote 4] convene conferences and meetings in various locations to share information and further their missions. Government travel for meetings, conferences, and seminars is an important source of economic activity for many communities throughout the United States. Press accounts in 2009 indicated that some federal agencies issued directives discouraging certain locations for conferences because of a perception by some that they were resort areas and would not be the best use of taxpayers' money. This briefing addresses how select federal agencies plan conferences and, in particular, select sites for them. Background: Federal conferences and meetings are governed by the Federal Travel Regulation (FTR).[Footnote 5] The FTR requires agencies to use a cost-effective approach when planning conferences. For example, the FTR requires agencies to minimize all conference costs by: * conducting cost comparisons of the size, scope, and location of conferences; * considering alternatives to conferences such as teleconferencing; and; * maximizing the use of government-owned or government-provided conference facilities. The FTR also requires federal agencies to develop internal policies that ensure FTR standards are met, but does not specify at what level these should be developed: the agencywide level or below the agencywide level by internal bureaus or other components. The FTR also requires agencies to consider all direct and indirect costs, such as the: * per diem expenses of the federal employees attending the conference, including: - lodging costs and; - travel costs; * cost of rooms and equipment for official business; and; * cost of employees' time at the conference and en route travel. When planning a conference, the goal, according to the FTR, is to select a location that ensures conference expenditures result in the greatest cost advantage to the government while also satisfying mission needs for the conference. Conference Planning Is Decentralized and Managed by Agency Bureaus and Components: According to officials at the agencies we reviewed:[Footnote 6] * Conference planning is a highly decentralized activity that is typically performed at the bureau or component level, below the agencywide level. * Conference location selection is largely driven by budgetary considerations. - After identifying locations that meet the requirements of a particular conference, such as the capacity for large numbers of attendees, officials from most of the agencies we reviewed said the comparative cost of locations, as part of the overall cost of the conference, was the key criterion for selecting conference locations. Most of the Agencies We Reviewed Had Agency-wide Policies for Conference Planning: In our review of the agencies' policies, we found that: * Although the FTR does not require federal agencies to develop agencywide policies, 8 of the 12 agencies had developed such policies for conference planning. * The other 4 agencies either allowed bureaus and components to develop their own policies, were in the process of developing agencywide policies, or conducted agency level review and approval of conferences that were proposed at the bureau or component level. * For the 8 agencies with agencywide policies, we found that their policies were consistent with the FTR by specifying that conference locations are to be selected on the basis of cost-effectiveness. Conference Planning Generally Aligned with Federal Travel Regulations: While cost-effectiveness is the principal criterion and the selection of resort locations is not prohibited, * USDA policies currently state that the selection of resort locations for conferences and meetings is discouraged and should be minimized. USDA officials said they are in the process of revising their regulations to clarify and strengthen conference and training location selection. * HHS policies state that meeting sponsors should not hold meetings at resort areas unless that area is the location best suited for the purpose of the meeting in terms of program needs and cost factors. * DOJ policies require additional justification for conferences and meetings held in resort locations. DOJ officials said that, consistent with FTR and DOJ policies, they will continue to follow this policy to ensure that conference locations provide the best value for the government. One Agency Reported Moving a Conference: Only one of the 12 agencies we contacted, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), reported moving a conference from a resort location to another location to avoid potential negative perceptions associated with holding government conferences in resort locations. * VA officials said the specific conference was moved from Las Vegas to Indianapolis in 2009. * However, VA officials said managers recognize that resort locations may, in some cases, offer more cost-effective alternatives to other locations and rely on cost comparisons to determine conference locations. Objectives, Scope, and Methodology: To conduct our review, we reviewed available agencywide conference planning policies and interviewed officials from the 10 largest cabinet-level departments in terms of employees, and two agencies”the General Services Administration and the Social Security Administration. * The 10 largest cabinet-level departments were: Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Interior, Justice, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs. We selected the Social Security Administration because it is the largest independent agency and the General Services Administration because it is responsible for promulgating the Federal Travel Regulation. We analyzed the extent to which the agencywide conference planning policies of the 8 agencies that had such policies were consistent with the FTR. We also identified the Interagency Travel Management Committee as the only governmentwide group knowledgeable about agency travel policies. * We administered a questionnaire to the 175 federal travel managers associated with this group as part of our effort to determine if unwritten, informal directives or guidance relating to the choice of location had been issued to agency conference planners. * All of the 22 travel managers who responded to our questionnaire indicated that they were not aware of any unwritten, informal directives or guidance relating to the choice of conference locations at their agency.[Footnote 7] We contacted the Inspector General from the agencies to identify any work they had done relating to conference planning. We contacted GAO's FraudNet and determined that no complaints had been filed relating to this issue. We considered, but did not conduct, case studies of individual conferences because the only practical methodology of selecting conferences would not have enabled generalizable results. We conducted this performance audit from August 2009 to May 2010, in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. [End of Enclosure 1] Enclosure 2: Department of Veterans Affairs: Office of the Secretary: May 21, 2010: Ms. Lorelei St. James: Acting Director: Physical Infrastructure: U.S. Government Accountability Office: 441 G Street, NW: Washington, DC 20548: Dear Ms. St. James: The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has reviewed the Government Accountability Office's (GAO) draft report, Selected Federal Agencies' Policies for Choosing Conference Locations (GAO-10-677R). The enclosure provides a comment to the draft report. VA appreciates the opportunity to comment on your draft report. Sincerely, Signed by: John R. Gingrich: Chief of Staff: Enclosure: [End of letter] Enclosure: Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Comments to Government Accountability Office (GAO) Statement of Facts Federal Conference Locations (Job Code 542164): VA Comment: VA relies on cost comparisons to determine conference locations and select locations based on a number of cost effectiveness factors such as travel costs/airfare, room rates, facility fees, off season pricing, etc. VA managers also realize that in some cases analysis of these factors may show that a resort location is a better value. [End of Enclosure 2] Footnotes: [1] For the purposes of this review, we will refer to these federal departments and agencies as "federal agencies." [2] 41 C.F.R. 301-74. [3] Because of a low response rate (13 percent), we could not use the results of the questionnaire to characterize the extent to which the travel managers had received unwritten rules or directives that applied to conference location planning. [4] For the purposes of this review, we will refer to federal departments and agencies as "federal agencies." [5] 41 C.F.R. Part 301-74 Conference Planning. [6] We conducted our review at the 10 largest cabinet-level agencies, the General Services Administration, and the Social Security Administration. See slide 9 for a list of these agencies. [7] Because the response rate was so low (13 percent), we could not use the results to characterize the extent to which travel managers had received unwritten rules or directives that applied to conference location planning. [End of section] GAO's Mission: The Government Accountability Office, the audit, evaluation and investigative arm of Congress, exists to support Congress in meeting its constitutional responsibilities and to help improve the performance and accountability of the federal government for the American people. 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