The American Society of Association Executives submitted testimony to a congressional subcommittee recently, urging the federal government not to restrict its employees from attending association conferences. ASAE is also asking its members to get involved by sharing stories of how their meetings improve society.

“Blanket restrictions that universally prohibit travel either in response to an unrelated type of conference or just the need to rein in spending does the country long-term harm,” wrote ASAE President and CEO John Graham in a letter to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The letter was submitted as testimony for a February 27th hearing by the Oversight and Government Reform’s Federal Workforce subcommittee called, The Road Less Traveled: Reducing Federal Travel and Conference Spending.

The hearing was on the effectiveness of the Office of Management and Budget’s 2012 directive for federal departments and agencies to slash conference spending by 30 percent. “We are hoping to determine today if these new policies have curbed wasteful expenditures, and what new statutory changes may be required to reduce travel spending appropriately and to shed greater transparency upon travel and conference spending,” said Committee Chairman Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) in his opening remarks. “We want to ensure that a GSA Las Vegas–type conference does not happen again,” he said "This is not an indictment of conferences or travel," he said, rather an investigation into how the public money is spent. 

In his letter, Graham cautioned lawmakers not to force federal workers to rely on technology to replace face-to-face meetings. “While there is a value to virtual networking, independent studies have shown that face-to-face meetings still retain immense value,” wrote Graham. He cited a survey in the Harvard Business Review in which 95 percent of readers said face-to-face meetings were key to successful long-term relationships, and 60 percent said their business relationships have suffered due to workplace travel cuts.

“For federal employees, these opportunities to meet the private sector are critical to the policymaking process,” he wrote. “In every sector, a federal agency needs to hear and learn from experts in the field, and very often these experts come together under the umbrella of a trade or professional society.” This type of access can’t be replicated in a government office or via virtual meetings technology, he added. “Mr. Chairman, I encourage you during this important hearing to consider the value of education and training meetings for the federal workforce and how the association community is driving this sector of the economy.”

Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ), a professional scientist, testified in strong support of meetings. "As a scientist, I know firsthand how important scientific conferences and meetings are," he said. The OMB guidelines would initiatiate "prohibitions and impendiments that would hinder American scientists' ability to collaborate and communicate with other scientists." Scientists rely on seeing one another at conferences and these collaborations and connections can lead to new discoveries. "Proximity matters, in science and in every other field," said Holt. "Would you propose that the legislative branch—you and I—remain in 435 separate locations never to see each other, communicating and voting by email?" He is hopeful that the pending legislation and OMB guidance will be modified to allow further scientific collaboration and progress. "We should be spending more on the conferences like those which promote innovation in microbiology, physics, chemistry, and a myriad of other scientific subject areas."

Association meeting professionals can get involved by submitting a written example of how their association's meetings are improving society or involving federal employees. The submissions could be published on ASAE’s “Power of A” Web site. Planners can also tweet their stories of meetings improving society using
the hashtag #pwra.

Finally, association leaders can attend American Associations Day in Washington, March 18-19, to tell elected officials face-to-face about the value of meetings. For more information, contact ASAE’s Public Policy Department at (202) 626-2703 or publicpolicy@asaecenter.org.