Federal agency senior leaders should curb their travel time and expenses

Due to reports of questionable spending or behavior at meetings, agencies and departments imposed restrictions on spending and conference attendance.

The further one travels the less one knows.”   -Tao Te Ching

With the COVID-19 public health emergency officially ended, business travel overall is once again increasing. Travel by government employees also is increasing as restrictions in place during COVID-19 are  being relaxed and government employees once again begin to attend in-person conferences, meetings, trainings and site visits throughout the nation and abroad. But post-COVID 19, I wonder about the rationale for much of this travel time and spending. What evidence after all exists that frequent in-person attendance at meetings in hotels or conference centers or site visits by agency senior leadership or even at the staff level, actually results in enhanced engagement, collaboration or efficiency or long-term outcomes that could not be achieved by phone or Zoom?

Agency travel has proven to be a hot-button issue now and then. The General Services Administration oversees federal travel and provides resources and guidance for agencies but federal government’s often arcane travel regulations and agency policies can confuse and frustrate even more experienced travelers. At times members of Congress weigh in and various inspectors general periodically ding agencies for their noncompliance. The Government Accountability Office, which also takes an occasional interest, has published a few reports here and there.

Sometimes questionable travel decisions by agency leaders become national news. Not that long ago, for example, a former Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) secretary lost his job largely due to alleged travel abuses. More recently, a current high profile leader was sharply criticized in the media for purportedly “unrealistic demands about his travel accommodations.” Following high profile reports of questionable spending or behavior at meetings, many agencies and departments imposed restrictions on spending and conference attendance.

Travel, of course, has had its moments in the private sector as well over the years, periodically seeming to wax and wane as companies seek to cut expenses, improve management and enhance sustainability. Much debate seems to exist as to whether the benefits of business travel outweigh its fiscal or environmental drawbacks, though the spending of taxpayer funds is a key additional consideration within government that does not generally exist within the private sector.

Rationales I’ve heard over the years for senior agency leadership travel include the opportunity to hear  ‘diverse voices’ or ‘getting closer to those we serve,’ ‘showing we care,’ looking at a potential program sites or being able to speak to those outside the ever expanding ‘DC bubble.’ Yet, such justifications often ring hollow. Indeed, many agencies now have fully remote staff throughout the nation and large regional offices; 85% of federal workers live outside DC. And it’s not clear that senior agency or department leadership must travel throughout the nation to know, for example, that the U.S. has a mental health crisis or visit Alaska or the Pacific Islands in person to realize that these populations confront serious challenges. As well, such trips are often repeated every year or two as one leader departs and a new senior leader comes on board or new staff replace retiring or exiting colleagues.

In fairness, I’ve seen a couple high-ranking leaders work hard over the years to curb their own travel and that of senior subordinates, but that’s more of the exception than the norm. Travel seems to be viewed by many senior agency leaders as a prerequisite of their office, with the more travel, the better. And that approach has a way of working its way down to the agency’s staff level.

There are certainly many good reasons for federal employees, even senior leaders, to travel, such as conducting complex audits, providing direct delivery of emergency or health care services and other functions. And it’s also important to acknowledge that once in a blue moon, especially following a disaster or high-profile event, leaders have been criticized for not visiting an area in distress. But much travel by higher level leaders does not seem tied to such direct services or outcomes and has no relation to emergency preparedness and response.

Moreover, as agencies strive post-COVID to enhance their in-person presence, frequent travel by agency leadership also seems inconsistent with the supposed benefits realized from being back in the office, often touted repeatedly by these very same senior leaders. Certainly it’s interesting to hear senior leaders discuss how much they miss(ed) seeing their staff in person and all the benefits of face-to-face interactions while they themselves spend ever more of their time on travel at meetings, conferences or other visits.

The administration’s policies on climate change are another reason to more closely scrutinize senior leadership travel. HHS’ 2022 Sustainability Plan, for instance, calls on agencies and offices within HHS to “reduce the environmental impact of government travel by prioritizing or incentivizing virtual meetings, ‘green’ travel options, and including funding for carbon offsets in travel reimbursement.” As the federal government seeks actively to enhance sustainability, including within the health care sector, shouldn’t its own staff, and most especially its leadership, walk the walk? Sustainable travel is great but no travel at all is obviously that much better for the environment.

The most compelling reasons to curb travel by agency leadership though might simply be that it detracts from their important interactions with staff members facing increasing challenges and evincing profound skepticism about their senior leadership’s overall engagement and effectiveness. Too many agency leaders, even as they jaunt for days at a time to far-flung locations, never have bothered to speak to most staff in their immediate office or building or even key stakeholders in D.C. or other areas where they are based. Travel certainly is not something always to be avoided but agency and department leaders might even, post-COVID, consider setting a personal example of frugality and discipline for their staff, spending less time on the road and more time rolling up their sleeves, opening the doors to their glass offices and working side-by-side with others at home. Perhaps their travel hundreds or thousands of miles away would have more benefits if an agency’s senior leaders actually understood, knew and cared about what was going on down the hall.

Mitchell Berger has worked on public health and behavioral health programs at the federal and local levels. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and should not be imputed to any public or private entities.

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