The General Services Administration’s conference spending scandal is reverberating across the government — especially this week at the agency’s annual Expo and training conference.
At the agency’s signature event, in San Antonio this year, attendance from government and industry is down by about half and it’s a much lower-key scene, according to several industry attendees.
A GSA spokesman said the 2,451 government attendees will include 357 from GSA. From the private sector, 2,896 attendees will represent 726 businesses, bringing the total attendance to 5,347.
Larry Allen, president of Allen Federal Business Partners, has been to every Expo for the last decade and said the conference usually draws about 1,000 GSA employees and 10,000 total attendees.
The decrease in total attendance at Expo isn’t unexpected.
Survey shows snowball effect across government
A new Federal News Radio online survey found the Public Buildings Service’s Western Regions conference scandal has taken its toll on other agencies’ spending money on events and training.
Out of 125 respondents, 58 percent said since the GSA scandal their agency has postponed or canceled conferences. Additionally, 57 percent of the respondents said they have been discouraged from attending conferences.
Responses came over the last two weeks from a wide range of agencies, including the IRS, the Defense Department, the Army, the Agriculture Department’s Forest Service and GSA, to name a few.
“The new procedures implemented apply to meetings as well. Our mission has been severely impacted by these new procedures, which were designed by those who have never organized a conference. Their purpose seems to be more to reduce the risk of bad publicity, rather than to ensure efficient spending,” wrote one respondent.
Another said, “Because of added layers of approvals, [you] must plan much further in advance. [My agency has] curtailed attendance at local events if any food or beverage (even coffee or bottled water) is being served because of the level of effort to obtain so many levels of approval.”
An IRS employee wrote that they “are not allowed to use any hotel with the term ‘resort’ in its title, even if they are at or below negotiated government rates.”
Several conferences and training sessions where travel is required already have been canceled. GSA’s Acting Administrator Dan Tangherlini told a House committee in early April he canceled 35 conferences, and he recently set strict rules for attending any conference where travel is required.
The Defense Department also canceled its annual procurement conference in Orlando.
Several respondents said their agency canceled smaller meetings and training sessions, including a planned program review, an annual high-level flag officer and Senior Executive Service symposium, and regional meetings on property management policy.
Some respondents, however, said the GSA scandal has had little or no effect on their conference schedule.
Expo much quieter affair
The impact of the scandal was clear at the Expo as well.
Industry attendees, who requested anonymity because they hadn’t received permission to speak on behalf of their company, said the low-key nature of the event filters through the posters and signs at the event, barely showing it’s a GSA show.
Men are wearing suits and ties, and women pants or skirts and blouses. There are no golf shirts with GSA’s logo.
“I don’t think the people of San Antonio would know there is a GSA show in town if they weren’t in the convention center,” Allen said. “It’s a very quiet public appearance for a GSA Expo. Once you get inside the convention center, there is training going on and the show room floor is going on as it usually does, albeit with significantly fewer attendees.” GSA also has focused on ethics and standards at the conference.
Allen said every welcome conference bag included a booklet on what’s acceptable and what’s not.
The GSA spokesman also said the agency conducted an all-hands meeting with employees on Monday to discuss ethics and conduct expectations.
“There is a very high amount of attention being paid to avoiding even an appearance of untoward behavior,” Allen said.
Industry attendees also said lunches have mostly been out of a box and while many GSA employees attend vendor-sponsored events, most don’t eat or participate beyond the networking sessions or panel discussions.
At the Coalition for Government Procurement’s discussion Wednesday morning, Tangherlini offered some insight into his plans for the agency.
Multiple industry sources who attended the speech said Tangherlini outlined his top four priorities.
Sustainability and how GSA needs to encourage environmental and energy sustainability.
Mobile office and telework, where GSA is planning for future workforce needs.
The next generation of schedules
One industry attendee said the reorganization is both internal and external.
Tangherlini said the “top-to-bottom review” is looking at how PBS can partner better with the Federal Acquisition Service, which has long been a problem.
The industry official said Tangherlini also is bringing more control to headquarters from the regions. For instance, all financial or controller functions in the regions now are run out of headquarters.
Tangherlini also is considering whether FAS could be the exclusive procurement arm of PBS. He also said he’s looking for areas to reduce duplication, specifically around contract vehicles.
“Administrator Tangherlini provided a thoughtful discussion about GSA’s value proposition and looking at how to continue to provide procurement support for the government,” said Roger Waldron, president of the Coalition for Government Procurement. “Expo is a good event, and a great opportunity for industry and the government to get training and share information and ideas.”
Next generation of schedules popular at Expo
Allen said GSA has spent a lot of time discussing the next generation of schedules.
“GSA set aside an entire afternoon to hear from customers in one session and contractors in another about what they think should come next for the GSA schedules program,” he said. “GSA officials, including FAS Commissioner Steve Kempf, said they will take this feedback … and start to work on some initiatives that will keep the schedules program at the forefront of government acquisition.”
Allen said many vendors and non-GSA agencies also expressed concern about budget cuts and how that will affect contracting.
“There’s an understanding that this year may be as good as it gets in the near term in terms of agencies having money to spend and having appropriated dollars in a reasonable time frame available to them for spending on needed projects,” he said.
Allen said several IT areas, such as cloud computing, data center consolidation and mobile computing, received a lot of attention too.
“Of the people here, there’s been an openness and willingness to talk. There is an understanding that you have to talk each other, business to government, if you are going to get the business of government achieved,” he said. “It’s been very refreshing not to have government people shying away from what you would hope would be normal and routine business interactions.”
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, 6 a.m.-10 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C. region and online everywhere.
Tom also writes a weekly commentary. Subscribe to Federal Drive's daily audio interviews on iTunes or PodcastOne