The U.S. General Services Administration has canceled its 2013 GSA Training and Expo conference over budget and attendance concerns.

 “After carefully reviewing the projected spending and attendance for this year’s conference, GSA is suspending Expo for 2013 in an effort to use our resources responsibly and to deliver better value and savings for our government partners, our vendors, and the American people,” GSA officials said in a statement.

A GSA survey of federal agencies, military personnel, and local governments revealed that 70 percent of respondents did not plan to attend Expo in 2013, says Dan Cruz, GSA spokesman. “With less demand for attendance due to budget constraints, we are adjusting to the needs of our agency partners,” adds Cruz.

The conference, which was slated for May 14–16 at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, brings together federal, state, and local government employees for acquisitions training and to meet with vendors. It typically attracts 3,000 attendees and 3,000 exhibitors.

There is no registration fee for government workers attending the conference, but agencies pay for travel and lodging, says Cruz. The total cost for cancelling is still be determined, adds Cruz, but “moving forward with the event would have cost significantly more.”

GSA is offering employees several webinars and other online options to support their training needs.

$28 Million in Conference Cuts

On February 27, GSA Chief Administration Services Officer Cynthia Metzler provided testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform’s Federal Workforce subcommittee at a hearing on the effectiveness of the Office of Management and Budget’s 2012 directive that ordered federal departments and agencies to slash conference spending by 30 percent. Metzler told the committee that the GSA reduced travel and conference spending by $28 million in fiscal year 2012 compared to the previous year.

Danny Werfel, controller of the OMB, told the committee at the hearing that overall government spending on travel and conferences is on pace to be $3 billion less at the end of fiscal year 2013 than it was in 2010 when the government spent nearly $12 billion on travel and conferences.

Agencies are cutting costs by using low-cost alternatives to conferences, like webinars; shortening conferences; and holding meetings in government-owned venues. “We must continue to be vigilant in reducing unnecessary travel on conference spending,” said Werfel. “We must also be vigilant in protecting activities that are necessary and vital to our shared priorities as a nation.”

He believes that the OMB directives to streamline costs and strengthen the conference spending approval and oversight process should “remain in place for years to come.”

Culture Change in Washington

Werfel said the “culture has changed” in Washington on conference and travel spending since the GSA story broke last spring.

Committee Chairman Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) asked Werfel if there were any changes he’d recommend should Congress move to legislate changes. (Several bills have been proposed, including the most recent, HR 313, the Government Spending Accountability Act of 2013. None has received approval from both houses of Congress).

Werfel suggested an exception clause to the provision that calls for agencies to cut expenses by 30 percent of 2010 levels through 2018.  There needs to be a structure in place to make sure that critical expenditures and activities move forward as intended, Werfel said. Werfel also suggests eliminating the provision that limits agencies from sending more than 50 people to international conferences. Those decisions should be made by the head of the agency, he said, noting that, in some cases, it is necessary, and more cost effective, to send more than that to one conference.