Should the U.S. continue to curb travel for government officials or is such travel essential to the operation of good government? That question was raised once again last week when the U.S. Travel Association released a survey showing that travel for meetings and conferences actually makes government more efficient and effective -- and benefits the economy to the tune of $24.4 billion.
Ironically the study was unveiled two days after several Republican senators introduced a bill to curb government travel even more. The legislation, sponsored Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Jeffrey Chiesa (R-N.J.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), would prohibit any conference costing more than $500,000. It also would limit participation at conferences held outside of the United States and require government agencies to post the details of their conferences online. The bill also would require the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to draw up new guidelines for acceptable travel expenses. Last year OMB mandated that federal agencies cut their travel spending by 30 percent.
U.S. Travel Association’s “The Value of Government Meetings" report, a study of the benefits of government meetings and events, is the first survey to evaluate the impact of cuts made to federal and state government travel budgets on the public and private sectors. Conducted by Rockport Analytics, the study found that cancelling government participation in key events carries significant costs and undermines important functions of government. The study also found that government travel for meetings and events had a total economic impact of $24.4 billion in 2011, supported 343,800 U.S. jobs and $14.5 billion in U.S. wages, and contributed $5.5 billion in tax revenue.
“Public agencies at all levels of U.S. government have made deep cuts to travel and meetings budgets in recent years," said Jon Gray, vice president of research & insight for Rockport Analytics, LLC. "Our research found that these across-the-board cancellations offer short-term savings at a much greater long-term cost."
The report highlights the impact of the cancellation of the 2013 Military Health System Conference, an annual training event for several thousand military medical personnel. It found that due to replacement costs and lost revenue, the event's cancellation will ultimately cost the government more than $800,000.
Similarly, the decision made by NASA to pull out of the April 2013 National Space Symposium, an international space exploration and policy event, had its own negative consequences. “Some 30 nations are represented at our symposium," said Elliot Pulham, CEO of the National Space Foundation, a private organization that runs the annual conference. “Important international partnerships are jeopardized, important international programs are placed at risk, and the U.S. government places serious strain on relationships with countries around the world when it does not attend."
The study also found that government meetings are more efficient than private sector meetings. Spending on government meetings and event operations in 2011 was significantly lower than that of the private sector, with an average of $173 per delegate per day compared to $339 for the private sector.
Private sector meetings also are more productive when government employees participate. Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of private-sector executives said that having government employees present at meetings and events added value to their firm through knowledge transfer.
The study also found government meetings benefit citizens and make government more effective. Eight-nine percent of government supervisors believe that government meetings and events benefit citizens, and 85 percent of government respondents agreed that meetings and events added value to employee development and training.
In addition, cancelling government attendance at conferences increases costs to taxpayers in the long run. The savings of bringing the public and private sector together are lost when conference attendance is cancelled, which requires numerous duplicate meetings at a greater net cost.
“We hope these new findings will encourage congressional leaders to re-evaluate proposals to drastically cut government travel budgets across the country," said Roger Dow, president and CEO of U.S. Travel. "When conducted responsibly, federal workers who travel for conferences and meetings deliver important services and real value to our nation. Rhetorically, few could argue with the goal of curbing abuses. Substantively, however, we must take great care not to create more problems than we solve. Striking the right balance is the key."