Shackling gov’t employees to their desks

Original Reporting | By Timothy Noah |

Sept. 25, 2013 — That government should be run more like a business has been a central tenet of Republican orthodoxy for more than a century. In 1910, Nelson W. Aldrich, a Republican senator from Rhode Island, declared that, if allowed to run the government “on a business basis,” he could save the Republic $300 million per year. (Aldrich, following his own advice, had built up a $16 million fortune by using his office to protect the sugar and railroad trusts.) One hundred years later, Republican John Kasich said while running (successfully) for governor in Ohio, “You have to take a business-like attitude. You have to create priorities and you have to manage your operations.” And in 2012, Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) urged that government be brought “in line with private sector practices.”

But when it comes down to cases, the GOP can be reluctant to translate this philosophy into practice.

There is a strong business case for conference travel, and that case is largely applicable to travel by government employees.

Previously, Remapping Debate has reported on Congress’s unwillingness to allow the Postal Service to pursue prudent business practices.  The latest example of this disjunction is an ongoing effort led by Coburn, Representative Darrel Issa (R-Ca.), and Representative Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) to target, as an inherently wasteful indulgence, government travel to professional conferences. “There is no question that federal employees should have some travel and go to some conferences,” Coburn recently told the The New York Times. “But most of it has nothing to do with their jobs. It’s a perk.”

Government conference-going, already pinched by budget constraints imposed by the sequester’s automatic discretionary spending cuts, was further curtailed under last summer’s “continuing resolution,” which temporarily funds the government through the end of this month. The CR required agency inspectors general to review any government-sponsored conferences that cost in excess of $100,000. In addition, a May 2013 memo from the White House budget office, drafted under pressure from congressional Republicans, instructed agencies to cut all travel spending by 30 percent. One association-industry chief estimates that government travel has already fallen by as much as 90 percent. Yet, Sen. Coburn and his colleagues continue to press for even tighter restrictions such as requiring agencies to post online minutes, speeches, exhibits, and videos of all agency conferences. One such bill, introduced by Rep. Farenthold, passed the House in July.  Similar Senate legislation, sponsored by Sen. Coburn, was introduced in late July and was referred to committee. (The most recent House-passed CR — the one that de-funds Obamacare — does not contain any language on conference travel.)

Granted, not all travel and conference spending by government (or private enterprise) is necessarily essential. Government conference travel attracted heightened scrutiny after the General Services Administration, which manages property for the federal government, threw itself a lavish Las Vegas retreat in 2010 that cost more than $800,000 (and ultimately cost GSA Administrator Martha Johnson her job). Private-sector conferences can be costly, too, when conference organizers locate them in resort hotels in exotic locations or hire expensive celebrity speakers, effectively forcing taxpayers to subsidize the recreational expenses of business executives (such travel is deductible as a business expense).

But there is a strong business case for conference travel, and that case is largely applicable to travel by government employees.


The business case for conference travel

An informal survey of private-sector conference travellers indicates that private businesspeople have a variety of substantive reasons for deeming conference travel essential.

Norbert Bell is a chemical engineer in Pasadena, California, for WorleyParsons, an Australia-based corporation. “There’s two reasons we participate in government conferences,” Bell told Remapping Debate. “One is to learn shared experiences regarding operational problems in chemical plants. And the other is, since I work for an engineering company…to promote our services.”

“Working in your own little bubble isn’t healthy,” said Jennifer Thibault. “If you aren’t part of the conversation, you don’t know what is new, exciting, or cutting edge.”

Elaborating on the first point, Bell explained that WorleyParsons “is a very large global company, and they do refineries and energy projects and just about everything. I’m in a small department that deals only with sulfur recovery plants.” These plants convert hydrogen sulfide, a byproduct in natural gas and petroleum refining, into elemental sulfur, a fairly specialized technical task. Bell finds that participation in conferences allows him to “learn shared experiences regarding operational problems in chemical plants…People always encounter operational problems and sometimes there are different solutions, which require some innovation and some experience.”

Jennifer Thibault is creative manager at Reboot, a New York design firm. “As part of my role at Reboot, I manage our in-house design team,” Thibault said in an email to Remapping Debate. “In-house design teams can often feel fairly sheltered from the greater design community. Attending [professional conferences] helps keep our team engaged with conversations and trends with other designers.”

To Thibault, conference travel is an antidote to isolation. “Working in your own little bubble isn’t healthy,” she said. “If you aren’t part of the conversation, you don’t know what is new, exciting, or cutting edge. For example, in the design field the software and technology is almost constantly changing. Seeing how other designers both explore the new capabilities and work through the frustrations that come along with the changes allows for fresh inspiration, or, at least, a shoulder for commiseration.”


Other business sectors

Clyde B. Wilson, Jr. is president and CEO of The Parking Network, a consulting firm based in Houston, Texas. “The parking industry is a fairly obscure business,” he told Remapping Debate, adding (in jest), “It’s a subject I know more about than I want to.” The Parking Network, which Wilson started a decade and a half ago, sells its services nationally. That means “you need to get your name out there, and to get to know people you go to conventions.”

Like Thibault, Wilson also sees conference travel as a way to learn about new technologies. Manufacturers of parking technologies don’t necessarily come to Houston to show off their wares; if he wants to see what’s new, he has to go to the annual convention of one of his industry’s three professional associations.

“You start out as a young guy in the business,” Wilson explained, “and it’s a way to get to know the people in your business.” A few years on, “There comes a point in time where you’re expected to be there. You’re the leader in the parking industry, and people expect you to be there. And you want to be there, because you want to remind people you’re still alive.”

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