Federal conference spend drops for first time since ’13
Federal conference spend drops for first time since ’13
30 JULY 2018 8:26 AM

STR’s report on U.S. government conference spending for fiscal year 2017 shows that spending has decreased after three* straight years of growth, despite gaps in 2017 reporting from several agencies.

HENDERSONVILLE, Tennessee—Conference spending by the U.S. government decreased 15.7% in fiscal year 2017. Down from approximately $166 million of expenditures in 2016 to $140 million in 2017, this marks the first decline since 2013, when government spending on conferences dropped by nearly two-thirds following the issuance of Memorandum M-12-12.

After reports of reckless spending by certain departments surfaced in 2012, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) required all federal agencies to publicly list conferences that cost at least $100,000 of taxpayer money. Total conference spending in 2012 amounted to nearly $300 million, but dropped drastically to approximately $100 million the following fiscal year. Since then, spending has steadily crept back upward—leading one to wonder the cause of the downward shift in spending during the 2017 fiscal year.

Perhaps the most interesting revelation in 2017’s cycle is that several agencies appear to no longer report their conference spending publicly after consistently doing so for the past five years. Non-reporting agencies include the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education and the Department of the Interior. It is possible that this loosened enforcement of public expenditure reporting is due to language found in Memorandum M-17-08, which encouraged the continuance of reasonable spending practice while also giving agencies more wiggle room in their spending reporting going forward.

Because three major agencies did not post figures for spending on meetings in 2017, all historical trend comparisons have been drawn using a comparable set of agencies from previous years.

This analysis by STR, parent company of Hotel News Now, takes into account spending reports from sixteen agencies on meetings that occurred from 1 October 2016 to 30 September 2017. A few key findings from the analysis include:

  • From 2016 to 2017, total spending dropped by $26.1 million.
  • At $140 million, spending on government conferences in 2017 is roughly half of the $276 million spent by these 16 agencies in 2012.
  • This spending in 2017 covered 507 conferences that hosted approximately 108,000 attendees.
  • The average federal conference in 2017 (costing $100,000 or more) had 218 attendees and cost an average of $275,208.
  • Washington, D.C., is still the most popular location for federal meetings, followed by Orlando, Florida.

By observing the total spending of every year since M-12-12 was first issued, we are able to observe the long-term trends in federal conference spending. Publicly released data indicates that among the 16 top agencies reporting in 2017, overall expenditures dropped for the first time since a substantial fall in 2013. This follows a notable boost seen after total spending increased from $121 million in 2015 to $166 million in 2016.

As has been the case every year so far since 2012, the top three highest-spending departments remained the same in 2017. The Department of Defense, the Department of Veteran Affairs and the Department of Health and Human Services incurred the greatest conference costs by a sizable margin compared to the rest of the major reporting federal agencies. These three departments alone comprise a staggering two-thirds of all conference spending in 2017.

The agency with the next highest level of spending was the Department of Homeland Security, followed by the Department of Justice and the Department of the Treasury. The agency with the lowest level of spending was once again the Securities and Exchange Commission, spending only $114,000 on a single conference for the year.

This year, the Department of Defense overtook the Department of Health and Human Services as the top-spending agency, jumping from third place to first place among the entire field. Having spent $33.7 million on conferences in 2016, the Department of Defense’s 21% spending increase the following year left the agency with a total bill of just over $40 million in 2017. This accounts for more than the amount spent by the bottom 11 agencies combined.

Spending by the Department of Veteran Affairs has fluctuated the past few years with a slight decline in 2017, landing at a total expenditure of approximately $29 million.* Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Human Services’ spending dropped significantly in 2017 to $22.3 million after a sharp uptick in 2016, when the department spent more than $44 million. However, the HHS netted the highest cost per meeting among the entire field averaging $353,919 per conference with the Social Security Administration close behind ($350,441 per conference). It’s worth noting that the HHS also featured the highest average attendance, with about 360 attendees per conference.

Only five other agencies besides the Department of Defense saw increased spending from 2016 to 2017, including the Department of Homeland Security, up from $8.2 million to $9.1 million; the Department of the Treasury, up from $1.5 million to $7 million; the Department of Energy, up from $3.7 million to $4.7 million; the Department of Transportation, up from $0.8 million to $2.1 million; and the Department of Commerce, which increased spending from $2.6 million to $2.7 million. This marked a 367% increase for the Department of the Treasury in particular, which is by far the greatest sum spent by this agency in the span since 2012; its next highest peak was in 2013 with a total of $3.4 million spent.

Finally, it should come as no surprise that Washington, D.C., and its surrounding government hub areas were once again the most popular spots for federal conferences. Interestingly, Orlando, Florida, overtook Atlanta as the second most popular spot behind D.C., landing 24 of the 491 conferences reported, or about 5%. Next on the list was San Antonio, which tied with Glynco, Georgia—where the IRS held 16 of its 42 conferences in 2017. Atlanta fell to sixth place behind Leesburg, Virginia. San Diego; Arlington, Virginia; Kansas City and Baltimore rounded out the top 10 federal conference destinations in 2017.

Brannan Doyle is a research analyst on the Market Insights team at STR.

This article represents an interpretation of data collected by STR, parent company of HNN. Please feel free to comment or contact an editor with any questions or concerns.

*Correction, 30 July 2018: This story has been updated to correct how many consecutive years the U.S. federal government increased its conference spending.

*Correction, 31 July 2018: This story has been updated to replace two charts and account for a data-gathering error concerning the Department of Veterans Affairs reporting.

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