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Analyzing US government conference spend
September 2 2013

For the first time, the government has made accessible data about departmental conference spending.

Highlights
  • The Department of Defense was the most active during fiscal year 2012, with 295 conferences held.
  • The Department of Veteran Affairs on average spent the most per conference ($571,243).
  • The Department of Health & Human Services had the most total attendees at their conferences.
By Jan Freitag
Senior VP, Strategic Development, STR
jan@str.com

Editor’s note: Lucas Busch, STR Analytics Summer Intern and Junior at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, contributed to this report.

HENDERSONVILLE, Tennessee--Federal agency spending on group and conference travel has come under enormous scrutiny during the past few years. Reasons include some well-publicized and (arguably) frivolous expenses and heightened accountability for the use of tax payer dollars during the downturn.

Whatever the ultimate motivator, President Obama instructed his Office of Management and Budget to make cost of government conference travel more transparent.

With that in mind, the OMB published its memo “Promoting efficient spending to support agency operations” in 2012 which states agencies should publicly report conference expenses in excess of $100,000:   

“Agencies shall report on conference expenses on a dedicated place on their official website. By January 31 of each year (beginning on January 31, 2013), the agency head shall provide a description of all agency-sponsored conferences from the previous fiscal year where the net expenses for the agency associated with the conference were in excess of $100,000.”

Agencies followed suit and released data for fiscal year 2012. (See Appendix below for the report URLs of the largest agencies.) However, no clearing house of this data was made available.

But while agencies complied with the letter of the law, comparing spending by agency and across meetings was impossible. Until now.

Thanks to our hard-working intern and some cumbersome retyping of data that only exists in PDF format, we can now look at and interpret some of the agency expenses for last fiscal year.

When analyzing federal departments’ conference spending, we looked at the 16 largest departments in terms of total employment. Together, they are responsible for employing nearly half of the 2.7 million federal civilian workers.  Overall, 895 conferences were reported. The total cost for these conferences was just more than $294 million. As requested by the OMB, the data reported is only based on conferences with more than $100,000 in expenses.


Click chart to enlarge.

Some high level takeaways of our analysis include:

• The Department of Defense was the most active during fiscal year 2012, with 295 conferences held. Although this equates to nearly $90 million in conference spending, it represents only about 0.01% of the department’s entire budget for 2012.
• The Department of Veteran Affairs and Department of Health & Human Services came in second and third in conference spending, with approximately $72 million and $56 million, respectively.
• With roughly $162 million of combined spending, the Department of Defense and Department of Veteran Affairs accounted for more than half of the $294 million in conference spending among all departments analyzed. When adding the Department of Health & Human Services, the spend equates to 74.1% conference spending of all departments.


Click chart to enlarge.

• Department of Veteran Affairs on average spent the most per conference ($571,243), with Department of Health & Human Services second ($415,784) and Department of Education third ($385,216).


Click chart to enlarge.

• Department of Health & Human Services and Department of Defense had the most total attendees at their conferences. However, seven out of 16 departments did not report on a total attendee count.

One data point that we could not calculate is the “average cost per department attendee.” While this is probably the number that most people are interested in, unfortunately the data does not lend itself to calculate this metric.

The OMB asked departments/agencies to report “the total number of individuals whose travel expenses or other conference expenses were paid by the agency.” After reviewing the departmental reports on conference spending, the number of individuals has been reported inconsistently. Sometimes the department reported “total department attendees,” sometimes “total attendees,” sometimes “individuals traveling on agency funds.” These descriptions all might or might not refer to the same group, but it could be argued, for example, that individuals traveling on agency funds could include outside third parties, which is different than the number of federal department attendees.

In addition, the “Total Conference Spend” or “Total Bureau Cost” might include the travel cost of individuals but also the cost to host the conference for all attendees (department and non-department alike). Hence, no analysis of these numbers has been conducted, as we cannot be certain that the number reported are indeed only the departmental costs that are only spent by department attendees.

We will now wait until January 2014 to see how spending in fiscal year 2013 trended. Then we can make statements about increase or decrease in total expenses by department and attendee head counts. The available data set gives a first look at the federal conference spending and the number of attendees. Obviously, spending of just less than a third of a billion dollars should and will receive some scrutiny, and we will continue to report as more data becomes available.

Appendix:
Department of Defense
Department of Veterans Affairs
Department of Homeland Security
Department of Justice
Department of the Treasury
Department of Agriculture
Department of the Interior
Department of Health & Human Services
Department of Transportation
Department of Commerce
Department of State
Environmental Protection Agency
Department of Labor
Department of Energy
Department of Housing & Urban Development
 

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