Read preceding story: Hidden Camera Feeds Attack on Govenment Meeting
It took a television crew with a hidden camera and flexible ethics to turn a two-day U.S. government training session into the latest battleground in the attack on face-to-face meetings.
But the response to criticism of the $671,000, two-day Social Security Administration workshop showed that our industry is still learning how to make the case for the value of meetings.
The story began with nearly 700 managers from SSA’s San Francisco Region spending a couple of days in back-to-back training sessions at Arizona’s Biltmore Resort and Spa. News reports focused on the 15-minute stretch break—egad, with music!—that preceded the closing session. Reporters jumped to the conclusion that federal employees had spent two days dancing on tables at taxpayers’ expense.
As reported today in MeetingsNet, we now know that a television news crew brought a hidden camera into the stretch break, after making no effort to cover the two days of learning that had just concluded.
Meeting professionals marvelled at the $85 room night that SSA received at the Biltmore. They pointed out that participants picked up their own expenses for off-site entertainment during the meeting. And they argued the value of including motivational segments in educational meetings.
But the industry response still missed the question that should be the gold standard in justifying any meeting: Did the program serve a purpose that was best achieved by meeting face to face?
The purpose of this meeting came through loud and clear in an article in The Arizona Republic, and in a conversation with SSA media officer Mark Lassiter. This was the region’s first live meeting since 2001, and Lassiter said many participants had less than two years’ experience in their current jobs.
“These were front-line managers and supervisors,” he stressed, notwithstanding reports that the meeting was a lavish executive retreat. “These are the people who manage the field offices throughout the region, the first-line supervisors, the people who supervise the staff and deal with the public when they have problems and issues.”
SSA’s Leslie Walker told The Arizona Republic that the agency is grappling with a wave of Baby Boomers becoming eligible for social security, and it used the workshop to transmit practical skills—helping applicants process documents online, or dealing with angry clients in a tough economy.
“The public is very stressed right now,” Walker said. “We’re getting threats every day in our offices.”
Lassiter didn’t want to talk about those threats, but said the “stress-management workshops” of interest to the TV news crew never happened. “That wasn’t what this conference was about.”
He said the general sessions were an opportunity for participants to hear from senior SSA management and for management to hear public concerns directly from front-line managers. A list of 14 breakouts covered topics like multigenerational communication, managing diversity, SSA e-services, and reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities.
No, this was not a waste of taxpayers’ money. And, no, this meeting could not have generated the same results via videoconference.
This is the information that would have made a compelling, bulletproof case for the meeting. Similar facts and arguments are out there for most of the meetings our industry organizes. And if the business case for a particular gathering really isn’t there … maybe that meeting shouldn’t take place.
Lassiter said he didn’t know whether organizers had written objectives for the SSA meeting, or whether they would measure results against those objectives. If not, they’re missing crucial information—but that gap is an opportunity for our industry, not a criticism of a beleaguered conference host. We’ll know the attack on meetings is truly behind us when any organization can make a clear, articulate case for every event it brings on-site. But to help our clients meet that test, we’ll first have to learn the arguments ourselves.
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president and CEO of The Conference Publishers Inc., one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer comments at The Edge, a blog about conferences and content. Send comments, facts, arguments, or column ideas to email@example.com.