Government agencies and departments are learning to live with travel restrictions and discovering innovative alternatives amid an anti-conference trend brought on by budget restrictions and well-publicized abuses.

But some managers fear the trend will inhibit federal workers’ ability to stay current with new technology field advancements or to consult with experts in the private sector via site visits, professional seminars and annual conferences.

“There is no substitute for a professional scientific meeting that brings together all of the experts and trainees in a field,” a National Institutes of Health official said. “However, NIH provides many other ways in which fellows can present their work and receive important feedback including lab seminars, journal clubs, and the NIH research festival.”

From the NIH to the Pentagon to the Department of Agriculture and the General Services Administration, where this whole issue started, travel expenses have been scrutinized and trimmed. Top-level managers must approve significant travel, especially to conferences.

All of it has put a damper on trips to what some officials argue are crucial training and professional development opportunities.

Many agencies, including the GSA, which was chastised for and still reeling from the now well-known $823,000 meeting in Las Vegas last year, are opting to preserve essential travel, while cutting back on expenses to satisfy OMB’s directive that travel budgets be reduced 30%. Congress is considering tightening even more, which prompted action from the American Society of Association Executives.

“ASAE’s concern with the amendments Congress quickly passed after the news of the GSA scandal is that Congress would hermetically seal off the federal workforce from important conversations with key constituencies,” said spokesman Jim Clarke.

A recent letter from the ASAE, urging Congress note to further restrict federal travel, specifically mentioned NIH as one agency which needs to attend medical conferences, for example.

ASAE capsulizes the argument, arguing further restrictions that could limit NIH employees to attending only one conference sponsored by a specific medical association is not enough.
Kathryn Medina, executive director of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council at OPM, said some travel to conferences is indeed critical, but also said her agency has achieved savings of more than $26 million this year by using innovative training methods.

“The federal government must continue to innovate in making training both affordable and accessible to its workforce,” she said. “Through the CHCO Council, HR University offers a range of training options, including online training, webinars and video conferences” that she said are taking up the travel slack.

The interim acting GSA administrator, Daniel Tangherlini, at a recent talk about innovation in government, noted that his agency, which eliminated much travel and canceled 35 conferences, is pioneering teleconferencing and other means to avoid travel, as part of its drive to think creatively. The CDC has embarked on virtual conferences.

“Creativity is necessity being the mother of invention,” Tangherlini told a public service roundtable on government innovation. “If you are a bureaucratic lion and suddenly the only things you have to eat are bureaucratic giraffes, you must get creative.”

The situation gets complicated for NIH, depending on a worker’s position there, noted the spokesperson, with evident consternation. The agency supports “at least one scientific meeting per year for post-doctoral fellows. For more junior trainees (graduate students, post-baccalaureate students, medical students) meeting travel to present original scientific work is encouraged, but not guaranteed,” the official said in a statement from the department in response to questions from Breaking Gov.

With the travel restrictions, “the NIH Scientific Directors have agreed that insofar as possible, their programs will honor their commitment to post-doctoral fellows to attend at least one scientific meeting a year at which to present their work, receive important feedback, get exposed to cutting edge ideas in their fields, and network with other scientists who will affect their careers in research.”

At NIH, it seems, the benefit of travel appears to be very important to their work, and they are trying to preserve it as best they can.

“Since the total amount of travel money available will be reduced, the total amount of travel that fellows can do may be restricted, but travel that is essential for their career development will be protected,” the NIH said in the statement.

Managers at the NIH and every other department are confronting situations like this all the time, having to choose between workers and trips, personnel and conferences, as they navigate the restrictions.

The Department of Defense this spring cancelled its annual Air Force IT conference in Alabama, citing budget and travel concerns, leaving local citizens worried about lost revenue to convention facilities, restaurants and hotels. And St. Louis suffered losses when GSA cancelled a summer event in that city.

Overall, the Pentagon has reduced budgeted travel funds by the 30% required by OMB, though certain travel, such as that required for operations, is exempted, as is formal educational training at government and military facilities. Training conferences are not being cut, but those which cost more than $100,000 undergo extra scrutiny as the Pentagon tries to do the same balancing act as other agencies.

“The Department believes that education and training are important aspects of developing a capable and ready workforce both military and civilian,” said Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins, defense press officer. “Therefore, DOD is taking a tailored and measured approach to the implementation of the travel reductions and conference restrictions that have been put in place across the federal government.”