A Federal Case

The CDC’s first-ever hybrid meeting saved money on employee travel costs while expanding the U.S. agency’s educational reach.

Support for a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) virtual-meeting pilot project – the first hybrid meeting to be fully produced by a federal agency – came straight from the top. Last November, President Obama signed an executive order urging federal agencies to reduce spending by finding alternatives to travel, including the use of videoconferencing.

At the CDC, Adam Arthur, a health communications specialist, had been working on a hybrid-meeting pilot – the 2011 Public Health Informatics (PHI) conference – since 2009. The CDC’s motivation for the project was identical to President Obama’s: to spend money more efficiently. Due to budget cuts, “ we’ve had to slash [the number of] in-person events in half,” Arthur said. Meetings that once were held annually are now biannual, and biannual meetings are now held every three to four years.

“And, unfortunately, we are still requiring our state and local people to continue to give us the same output,” Arthur said. “[Employees] need the information that they normally would come to our events to get. So there is an imbalance.” Virtual initiatives, he said, “are what is being looked at as the potential answer.”

Lots of paperwork

The federal government runs on paperwork, and PHI 2011 – a joint project between the CDC and the National Association of County and City Health Officials for government employees working in health-related information systems – was no exception. But the 43-page project-charter document that Arthur created for the event, which was held at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta last Aug. 21–24, not only was not a burden, he said, but in fact was one of the keys to PHI’s success.

The document outlined exactly how adding a virtual meeting component would help meet the CDC’s operational goals, as well as objectives including sustainability, accessibility, and security. In order for the virtual-meeting initiative to have a chance at succeeding, he said, it had to do more than just save money; it had to make CDC processes more efficient overall. The project plan was transparent about multiple issues, including projected risks and demands that would be made for equipment and staff.

Even if detailed documentation isn’t required, Arthur recommends that meeting professionals who are planning a virtual component for the first time create their own version of a charter document. By outlining everything up front, “you are showing that your vision has been well thought out,” Arthur said. “You instantly win over the individuals that would usually be your naysayers, because you’ve covered your bases.” Plus, he added, “anyone who over-promises by saying there are no issues coming – they are fooling themselves.”

For PHI, security was a particular concern, because of the tight regulation of federal data in general and of CDC data in particular. Many conference attendees were scientists and specialists in charge of the information systems that carry health-related messages, including patient records and infectious-disease surveillance. Arthur knew that one of the first questions would be, “How safe is the data?” So while the project was still in the concept phase, he invited his managers along with security officials from the CDC director’s office to be part of the decision-making process.

“It’s no longer my idea at that point,” Arthur said. “[The stakeholders] are actually like a board of directors.”

A Faithful Rendering

Arthur positioned PHI’s digital iteration as a genuine alternative to attending the conference in person, not a pale imitation; every session presented during the three-day meeting was available to online attendees. Three morning plenary sessions and the closing general session were live-streamed, and the virtual conference website offered 101 live concurrent webinar sessions, with PowerPoint and audio of the in-person, on-site speakers.

Arthur tried to bridge the gap between the digital and face-to-face experience by making the virtual meeting feel as personal as possible. In addition to creating a faithful facsimile of the meeting environment, the conference included 17 virtual hosts, who helped welcome attendees to the sessions and acted as online moderators.

Another key objective was to make the cost-saving digital alternative available without cutting too deeply into the face-to-face event, which historically had approximately 1,500 attendees. Arthur’s strategy was to attract new in-person and virtual attendees by repositioning PHI as a resource for a larger audience. The PHI conference team ultimately renamed the conference – formerly known as the Public Health Information Network – to signal that it was open to everyone who was interested in public-health informatics.

‘A Huge Win’

The CDC’s ultimate goal for its hybrid meeting was to save on travel costs for some constituents, Arthur said, while keeping in-person attendance at a minimum of 500. It succeeded. PHI’s attendance was split equally, with 911 people on site at the Atlanta conference and 917 in the virtual audience. Arthur also succeeded in bringing in new attendees, in part by offering pre-conference content online, including interviews with high-ranking CDC officials. He estimates that about 200 new attendees registered for the in-person event as a result of being able to preview it.

As for the goal of reducing travel costs, Arthur’s “conservative” estimate of savings is $780,000, including gas and airfare, lodging, and meals for attendees who participated online instead of traveling to Atlanta. A major portion of those savings, he added, ultimately stay with taxpayers.

Another important measure of success was user satisfaction. In a survey conducted after PHI, attendees were asked if they thought the CDC should continue putting resources behind virtual-meeting technology. A full 100 percent of them answered yes. “That,” Arthur said, “was a huge win.”

The agency already has given Arthur the green light to produce a virtual component for PHI through 2014. And the CDC is considering how it can replicate the hybrid-meeting model throughout the agency.

As successful as PHI was, Arthur doesn’t think virtual programs can replace face-to-face events – although, he said, that has been suggested. “Shaking someone’s hand and looking in their eye and having collaboration on that level – there are many studies that show face-to-face contact is essential,” he said. “If you go virtual-only, you are going to lose some of that collaborative juice.”

Skyping Uncle Sam
President Obama signed Executive Order 13589 last November to promote efficient spending in federal agencies by means including “devis[ing] strategic alternatives to Government travel, including local or technological alternatives, such as teleconferencing and video conferencing. Agencies should make all appropriate efforts to conduct business and host or sponsor conferences in space controlled by the Federal Government, wherever practicable and cost effective.”


Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.