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GAO-10-677R: 

United States Government Accountability Office: 
Washington, DC 20548: 

June 10, 2010: 

Congressional Requesters: 

Subject: Selected Federal Agencies' Policies for Choosing Conference 
Locations: 

Press accounts in 2009 indicated that some federal agencies had issued 
directives to their staff discouraging them from choosing certain 
locations for conferences. This was because of the perception by some 
that the locations were resort areas and would not be the best use of 
taxpayers' money. Noting that government travel for meetings, 
conferences, and seminars is an important source of economic activity 
for many communities throughout the United States, you asked us to 
review agencies' policies for selecting conference locations, in view 
of these concerns. This letter transmits the results of our work which 
are contained in Enclosure I. 

Summary: 

Conference planning at the 10 departments and 2 agencies[Footnote 1] 
we reviewed is a decentralized activity that is typically performed at 
the bureau or component level, below the agencywide level. Budgetary 
considerations largely influence the agencies' conference location 
selections. For example, officials from most of the agencies we 
reviewed explained that after identifying locations that meet the 
requirements of a particular conference, such as the capacity for 
large numbers of attendees, the comparative cost of locations was the 
key criterion used for selecting a conference location. Eight of the 
12 agencies that we reviewed had developed agencywide policies for 
conference planning; these policies were consistent with the 
governmentwide policy on conference planning in the Federal Travel 
Regulation (FTR)[Footnote 2], and specified that conference locations 
be selected on the basis of cost-effectiveness. The other 4 agencies 
either allowed bureaus and components to develop their own policies, 
were in the process of developing agencywide policies, or conducted 
agency level review and approval of conferences that were proposed at 
the bureau or component level. While cost-effectiveness is the 
principal criterion and the selection of resort locations is not 
prohibited among the agencywide policies we reviewed, three agencies 
had policies that mentioned resort locations. The Department of 
Agriculture (USDA) policies currently state that the selection of 
resort locations for conferences and meetings is discouraged and 
should be minimized. USDA officials said they are in the process of 
revising their regulations to clarify and strengthen conference and 
training location selection. Similarly, the Department of Health and 
Human Service policies state that meeting sponsors should not hold 
meetings at resort areas unless that area is the location best suited 
for the purpose of the meeting in terms of program needs and cost 
factors. The Department of Justice (DOJ) policies require additional 
justification for conferences and meetings held in resort locations. 
DOJ officials said that, consistent with FTR and DOJ policies, they 
will continue to follow this policy to ensure that conference 
locations provide the best value for the government. One of the 12 
agencies we reviewed, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), 
reported moving a conference from a resort area to another location in 
2009 to avoid potential negative perceptions associated with holding a 
government conference in a resort location. However, VA officials said 
managers recognize that resort locations may, in some cases, offer 
more cost-effective alternatives to other locations and rely on cost 
comparisons to determine conference locations. 

Scope and Methodology: 

We reviewed available agencywide conference planning policies and 
interviewed officials from the 10 largest cabinet-level departments in 
terms of employees, and two agencies--the General Services 
Administration and the Social Security Administration. The 10 largest 
cabinet level agencies include the departments of Agriculture, 
Commerce, Defense, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, 
Interior, Justice, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs. We 
selected the Social Security Administration because it is the largest 
independent agency in terms of employees and we selected the General 
Services Administration because it promulgates the FTR, the 
governmentwide travel policy. We analyzed the extent to which the 
agencywide conference planning policies of the 8 agencies that had 
such policies were consistent with the FTR. 

We contacted the Inspector Generals from the agencies to identify any 
work they had done relating to conference planning, and we contacted 
GAO's FraudNet and determined that no complaints had been filed 
relating to this issue. We also identified the Interagency Travel 
Management Committee as the only governmentwide group knowledgeable 
about agency travel policies. We administered a questionnaire to the 
175 federal travel managers associated with this group as part of our 
effort to determine if unwritten, informal directives or guidance 
relating to the choice of location had been issued to agency 
conference planners. All of the 22 travel managers who responded to 
our questionnaire indicated that they were not aware of any unwritten, 
informal directives or guidance relating to the choice of conference 
locations at their agency.[Footnote 3] 

We considered, but did not conduct, case studies of individual 
conferences because the only practical methodology of selecting 
conferences would not have enabled generalizable results. 

We conducted this performance audit from August 2009 to May 2010, in 
accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. 
Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain 
sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our 
findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe 
that the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our 
findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. 

Agency Comments: 

We provided a draft of this letter to the 12 agencies we analyzed for 
their review and comment. Ten agencies notified us that they did not 
have any comments on our letter. One agency, the Department of 
Veterans Affairs, provided written comments that are reproduced in 
Enclosure II. The Department of Veterans Affairs did not agree or 
disagree with our letter but noted that in some cases cost analysis 
may show that a resort location can offer a better value than other 
locations for conferences. One agency, the Department of Defense, did 
not provide us with comments in time for the issuance of this letter. 

We are sending copies of this letter to the heads of the 12 agencies 
we reviewed and other interested congressional committees. In 
addition, this letter will be available at no charge on GAO's Web site 
at [hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov]. 

If you or your staff has any questions concerning our results, please 
contact me at (214) 777-5719 or stjamesl@gao.gov. Contact points for 
our Offices of Congressional Relations and Public Affairs may be found 
on the last page of this letter. Principal contributors to this 
project were Maria D. Edelstein, Assistant Director; Lindsay M. Bach; 
Lisa G. Shibata; H. Brandon Haller; Colin Fallon; and Kathleen A. 
Gilhooly. 

Signed by: 

Lorelei St. James: 
Acting Director: 
Physical Infrastructure: 

Enclosures - 2: 

List of Requesters: 

The Honorable John L. Mica:
Ranking Member:
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure:
House of Representatives: 

The Honorable Shelley Berkley:
House of Representatives: 

The Honorable Corrine Brown:
House of Representatives: 

The Honorable Lincoln Diaz-Balart:
House of Representatives: 

The Honorable Alan Grayson:
House of Representatives: 

The Honorable Dean Heller:
House of Representatives: 

The Honorable Suzanne Kosmas:
House of Representatives: 

The Honorable Bill Posey:
House of Representatives: 

The Honorable Dina Titus:
House of Representatives: 

Enclosure 1: 

Briefing to Staff for the House Committee on Transportation and 
Infrastructure and Others: 

May 2010: 

Selected Federal Agencies' Policies for Choosing Conference Locations: 

Introduction: 

Federal departments and agencies[Footnote 4] convene conferences and 
meetings in various locations to share information and further their 
missions. 
	
Government travel for meetings, conferences, and seminars is an 
important source of economic activity for many communities throughout 
the United States. 

Press accounts in 2009 indicated that some federal agencies issued 
directives discouraging certain locations for conferences because of a 
perception by some that they were resort areas and would not be the 
best use of taxpayers' money. 

This briefing addresses how select federal agencies plan conferences 
and, in particular, select sites for them. 

Background: 

Federal conferences and meetings are governed by the Federal Travel 
Regulation (FTR).[Footnote 5] 
	
The FTR requires agencies to use a cost-effective approach when 
planning conferences. For example, the FTR requires agencies to 
minimize all conference costs by: 

* conducting cost comparisons of the size, scope, and location of 
conferences; 

* considering alternatives to conferences such as teleconferencing; 
and; 

* maximizing the use of government-owned or government-provided 
conference facilities. 

The FTR also requires federal agencies to develop internal policies 
that ensure FTR standards are met, but does not specify at what level 
these should be developed: the agencywide level or below the 
agencywide level by internal bureaus or other components. 	 

The FTR also requires agencies to consider all direct and indirect 
costs, such as the: 

* per diem expenses of the federal employees attending the conference, 
including: 
- lodging costs and; 
- travel costs; 

* cost of rooms and equipment for official business; and; 

* cost of employees' time at the conference and en route travel. 

When planning a conference, the goal, according to the FTR, is to 
select a location that ensures conference expenditures result in the 
greatest cost advantage to the government while also satisfying 
mission needs for the conference. 

Conference Planning Is Decentralized and Managed by Agency Bureaus and 
Components: 

According to officials at the agencies we reviewed:[Footnote 6] 

* Conference planning is a highly decentralized activity that is 
typically performed at the bureau or component level, below the 
agencywide level. 

* Conference location selection is largely driven by budgetary 
considerations. 
- After identifying locations that meet the requirements of a 
particular conference, such as the capacity for large numbers of 
attendees, officials from most of the agencies we reviewed said the 
comparative cost of locations, as part of the overall cost of the 
conference, was the key criterion for selecting conference locations. 

Most of the Agencies We Reviewed Had Agency-wide Policies for 
Conference Planning: 

In our review of the agencies' policies, we found that: 

* Although the FTR does not require federal agencies to develop 
agencywide policies, 8 of the 12 agencies had developed such policies 
for conference planning. 

* The other 4 agencies either allowed bureaus and components to 
develop their own policies, were in the process of developing 
agencywide policies, or conducted agency level review and approval of 
conferences that were proposed at the bureau or component level. 

* For the 8 agencies with agencywide policies, we found that their 
policies were consistent with the FTR by specifying that conference 
locations are to be selected on the basis of cost-effectiveness. 

Conference Planning Generally Aligned with Federal Travel Regulations: 

While cost-effectiveness is the principal criterion and the selection 
of resort locations is not prohibited, 

* USDA policies currently state that the selection of resort locations 
for conferences and meetings is discouraged and should be minimized. 
USDA officials said they are in the process of revising their 
regulations to clarify and strengthen conference and training location 
selection. 

* HHS policies state that meeting sponsors should not hold meetings at 
resort areas unless that area is the location best suited for the 
purpose of the meeting in terms of program needs and cost factors. 

* DOJ policies require additional justification for conferences and 
meetings held in resort locations. DOJ officials said that, consistent 
with FTR and DOJ policies, they will continue to follow this policy to 
ensure that conference locations provide the best value for the 
government. 

One Agency Reported Moving a Conference: 

Only one of the 12 agencies we contacted, the Department of Veterans 
Affairs (VA), reported moving a conference from a resort location to 
another location to avoid potential negative perceptions associated 
with holding government conferences in resort locations. 

* VA officials said the specific conference was moved from Las Vegas 
to Indianapolis in 2009. 

* However, VA officials said managers recognize that resort locations 
may, in some cases, offer more cost-effective alternatives to other 
locations and rely on cost comparisons to determine conference 
locations. 

Objectives, Scope, and Methodology: 

To conduct our review, we reviewed available agencywide conference 
planning policies and interviewed officials from the 10 largest 
cabinet-level departments in terms of employees, and two agencies—the 
General Services Administration and the Social Security Administration. 

* The 10 largest cabinet-level departments were: Agriculture, 
Commerce, Defense, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, 
Interior, Justice, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs. We 
selected the Social Security Administration because it is the largest 
independent agency and the General Services Administration because it 
is responsible for promulgating the Federal Travel Regulation. 

We analyzed the extent to which the agencywide conference planning 
policies of the 8 agencies that had such policies were consistent with 
the FTR. 

We also identified the Interagency Travel Management Committee as the 
only governmentwide group knowledgeable about agency travel policies. 

* We administered a questionnaire to the 175 federal travel managers 
associated with this group as part of our effort to determine if 
unwritten, informal directives or guidance relating to the choice of 
location had been issued to agency conference planners. 

* All of the 22 travel managers who responded to our questionnaire 
indicated that they were not aware of any unwritten, informal 
directives or guidance relating to the choice of conference locations 
at their agency.[Footnote 7] 

We contacted the Inspector General from the agencies to identify any 
work they had done relating to conference planning. 

We contacted GAO's FraudNet and determined that no complaints had been 
filed relating to this issue. 

We considered, but did not conduct, case studies of individual 
conferences because the only practical methodology of selecting 
conferences would not have enabled generalizable results. 

We conducted this performance audit from August 2009 to May 2010, in
accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. 

[End of Enclosure 1] 

Enclosure 2: 

Department of Veterans Affairs: 
Office of the Secretary: 

May 21, 2010: 

Ms. Lorelei St. James: 
Acting Director: 
Physical Infrastructure: 
U.S. Government Accountability Office: 
441 G Street, NW: 
Washington, DC 20548: 

Dear Ms. St. James: 

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has reviewed the Government 
Accountability Office's (GAO) draft report, Selected Federal Agencies' 
Policies for Choosing Conference Locations (GAO-10-677R). 

The enclosure provides a comment to the draft report. VA appreciates 
the opportunity to comment on your draft report. 

Sincerely, 

Signed by: 

John R. Gingrich: 
Chief of Staff: 

Enclosure: 

[End of letter] 

Enclosure: 

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Comments to Government 
Accountability Office (GAO) Statement of Facts Federal Conference 
Locations (Job Code 542164): 

VA Comment: 

VA relies on cost comparisons to determine conference locations and 
select locations based on a number of cost effectiveness factors such 
as travel costs/airfare, room rates, facility fees, off season 
pricing, etc. VA managers also realize that in some cases analysis of 
these factors may show that a resort location is a better value. 

[End of Enclosure 2] 

Footnotes: 

[1] For the purposes of this review, we will refer to these federal 
departments and agencies as "federal agencies." 

[2] 41 C.F.R. § 301-74. 

[3] Because of a low response rate (13 percent), we could not use the 
results of the questionnaire to characterize the extent to which the 
travel managers had received unwritten rules or directives that 
applied to conference location planning. 

[4] For the purposes of this review, we will refer to federal 
departments and agencies as "federal agencies."	 

[5] 41 C.F.R. Part 301-74 Conference Planning. 

[6] We conducted our review at the 10 largest cabinet-level agencies, 
the General Services Administration, and the Social Security 
Administration. See slide 9 for a list of these agencies. 

[7] Because the response rate was so low (13 percent), we could not 
use the results to characterize the extent to which travel managers 
had received unwritten rules or directives that applied to conference 
location planning. 

[End of section] 

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