GAO: Agency rules allow conferences at resort locations

By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor

When it comes to choosing where to hold a federal conference, what goes in to making the decision may look remarkably like the way we choose vacation plans: first figure out what’s absolutely essential, then find the cheapest cost.

The Government Accountability Office took a look at the policies a handful of agencies have crafted for selecting conference locations, following concerns last year that agencies were not making good use of taxpayer money by choosing resort locations like Hawaii, Orlando, and Las Vegas. Counter-concerns were then raised about unwritten blacklists banning agencies from even considering those venues.

Lorelei St. James, Acting Director for Physical Infrastructure Issues at GAO, explained to Federal News Radio, it’s all about the money.

Federal travel policies, she said, “don’t really prohibit conferences at resort locations. The policies actually require rather comprehensive and competitive or comparative look at where to hold these conferences, and it’s based primarily on cost comparisons.”

GAO looked at the policies of the General Services Administration, the Social Security Administration, and the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Interior, Justice, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs.

“We found that the policies at the agencies, they don’t really prohibit holding conferences at resort locations. The bottom line regarding that is even though it may be in a resort location, if it offers the best cost advantage to the government, it’s okay.”

And, said St James, there’s a lot that goes into figuring out the best cost.

“You need to consider a number of factors such as per diem costs, flights to the actual resort location, but they also require agencies to take a look at alternatives such as video-conferencing or teleconferencing or even using government owned or provided space.”

Overall, agencies’ policies can be seen as “as long as you can meet, it’s a good deal for the government, and still meet the mission, what the conference is all about, then it’s meeting what’s required in terms of regulations,” said St James.

The GAO made no recommendations to Congress about making any changes to the way things work now, but St James said it’s never a bad idea to double check. “If something happens that forces people to relook (at) their policies, then sometimes that’s a good thing,” she said.

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