Budget and Spending:
Selected Federal Agencies' Policies for Choosing Conference Locations
GAO-10-677R, Jun 10, 2010
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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.