The General Services Administration (GSA) spending scandal is threatening to go viral with the recent announcement that GSA's inspector general has been asked to investigate as many as 77 more conferences.
Taxpayers and legislators already were fuming over revelations of excessive spending at meetings hosted by GSA, such as the 2010 regional conference outside Las Vegas that cost $822,751 and led to the resignation of GSA Administrator Martha Johnson and other employees earlier this year. Hotels have been scrambling to fill guest rooms following the cancellation of various government meetings, including the 11,000 rooms left vacant when, in July, GSA pulled the plug on GovEnergy 2012 a little more than a month before the conference was scheduled to have been held in St. Louis. Under new leadership, the agency has canceled 37 previously scheduled conferences.
In the middle of the controversy are government meeting planners, whose job is to fulfill their bosses' or clients' expectations while navigating an ever-changing maze of legislative and agency regulations. For an insider's perspective, we talked to Garland Preddy, CGMP, a special events consultant to the United States Marshals Service (USMS) and an adviser on planning federal government events to hotels, CVBs, government agencies, and event-management companies.
Preddy, who began planning events for the Department of Justice during the Reagan administration, has taught courses on meeting topics for George Washington University and George Mason University. At the annual meeting of the Society of Government Meeting Professionals (SGMP) this past May, Preddy was named the 2012 Sam Gilmer Planner of the Year. Has the GSA scandal created a crisis in the meetings industry?
It is very damaging to the hospitality industry, because government meetings are stable. When associations and corporations are not traveling, we are usually pretty economy-proof, the government continues to meet. This has put a real crimp in the way government does business.
I work for the Department of Justice [DOJ], and we have to go through all kinds of permissions and authorizations to hold a meeting. We have actually been required since 2005 to hold our meetings in federal facilities unless we get a waiver from the Department of Justice. They are really enforcing that now.
I just set up two meetings, one in San Antonio and one in Seattle. And we were very lucky to be able to find federal facilities with nearby hotels. That is not going to be the case in a lot of the second- and third-tier cities. They are not going to have the available federal facilities. There are a lot of federal facilities, but whether they have adequate meeting space is another issue. So if you are trying to use a non-federal facility, you have to get authorization from the DOJ to do that.
My feeling is there is an initial knee-jerk reaction from Congress; they typically operate that way, by not really examining the whole issue. During Muffingate, DOJ was accused of spending $16 or whatever for a muffin. Nobody even remembers that now, since all the GSA scandals are going on. But that was a case of knee-jerk reaction from a report. Somebody did not get the full information, and it turned out not to be true. You cannot un-ring a bell. That created a lot more reporting requirements.
I think there are plenty of rules and regulations out there, we do not need more. We need more scrutiny and we need more current review.
For example, the GSA event in Las Vegas took place in 2010. It is two years later. Lord knows what has happened in the two years, since that appears to be the way GSA did business.
In 2010 they did an awards ceremony locally here in Arlington, [Va.,] and spent a quarter of a million dollars. That was not hotel costs, I just did an awards ceremony there last week. The attorney general was our keynote speaker, and [the salesperson I worked with] was the person who did that GSA meeting [in 2010]. She said the hotel costs were under $25,000. So the additional $225,000 went to the guitarist, the violinist, the [commemorative] drumsticks, whatever else they were doing to embellish their awards ceremony. So you have to dig deep into the report to see what the transgressions have been.
How do you think we got here?
I believe that no one was looking. I teach an ethics class [titled] "Doing the Right Thing When No One Is Looking," and I think that in the case of GSA, they have been doing [things that way] probably since way before 2010. And it seemed to me, from reading the report, there was almost some competition between the regions and their conferences: "Let's make this the best ever, let's make this better than the East Coast conference, let's go over the top with this." And so, given those guidelines, the planner did that.
I have a lot of heartache for [the GSA planner who did the Las Vegas event]. I am wondering, if my boss came to me, and I know the rules and regulations, for goodness' sake, GSA writes the rules and regulations, but suppose my boss came to me and said, "Okay, Garland, I want this to be absolutely over the top. Spare no expense, do whatever you have to do. I want this to go down in history", which it certainly has, "as the best GSA regional conference ever." So as an event planner, I am torn here.
What do I do? Do I call in the lawyers? Do I call in the ethics officer? Do I call in the procurement people to make sure that I could still do an over-the-top meeting, but within the legal and ethical parameters? Or do I just go full steam ahead? So it is going to be a real issue for the government planner if tasked with doing that sort of event.
I am just speaking from my point of view, but we had a director here [at the DOJ] some years ago, and I knew that I was setting myself up to fail by doing bigger and better every time. We were within the legal bounds of government procurement and spending, but it was like, "Okay, what are you going to do next time?" So there is this pressure to be kind of the best planner out there and to pull off the biggest event.
I think it would be a real challenge to a planner to say, "I would love to do that for you, but it is against procurement regulations," ... and have a boss say, "Well, figure out a way to do it anyway." And it seemed that that was the attitude at GSA, figure out how to do this anyway.
What do you think will happen legislatively?
There are a lot of bills out there, but I am not aware of any having been passed. I have been hearing speculation from the DOJ about that, and guidance is coming down from DOJ absent any laws passed by Congress, about [how] the whole meeting cannot be any more than $500,000, etc. So Congress may be trying to strengthen rules and regulations, but I believe this is going to be an individual regulatory mission by the departments themselves. There may be some laws coming from Congress, but I think the agencies, I am speaking for the DOJ, are trying to get their ducks in a row to be in compliance. You only have to tweak the rules if laws come down.
Do you think that the people who are planning government meetings and are making the decisions that we are reading about in the headlines are generally well prepared to do so?
I would say some, maybe. I would think that a lot are not. I would think that some of them are young secretaries [to whom] their bosses say, "Hey, I want to have a board meeting. Get me a meeting room, get me coffee and muffins." And they do not know the rules and regulations. And so they are calling around to find a meeting room. Without the expertise, a function itself could be done, but there are so many rules that surround it, [meeting planners] need guidance.
Do you think this will make the Certified Government Meeting Professional (CGMP) designation more valuable?
I do. And I have seen on job announcements that the CGMP is preferred. So that is becoming something that the industry has obviously recognized and is asking for, that people be certified.
Do you think planning government meetings will continue to be satisfying?
Yes, I do. I think this is going to, not blow over, because I think blowing over would have meant there was no blowback, and I think there is going to be a lot. But I think that it will all die down and we will be doing business, just maybe not in the same way that we had been.
The GSA announced in mid-August that it would freeze per-diem rates for government travelers in fiscal year 2013 at 2012 levels; the agency reportedly had considered adopting an alternative methodology of calculating per-diem rates that would have cut them by approximately 30 percent. Read more: convn.org/rate-freeze.
Convene wrote about the initial effects of the GSA investigation into the Las Vegas meeting in our June issue, at convn.org/gsa-scandal.