Budgets + Revenue

GSA: Which Side Is Right?

I'm watching this case unspool from two different perspectives, each one maybe a little different from that of the general public: as someone who works in or for the meetings industry, and as someone who lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Thanks to the first perspective, I’m cautious about condemning the people who organized the GSA conference that’s on its way to becoming the subject of congressional hearings, because at least some — not all, but some — of the things that are being most harshly criticized seem like the normal, necessary trappings of any meeting. The whole story is still shaking out, but I do wonder if some of what has people upset is based on a misunderstanding of how meetings are planned, and how much they cost. Shades of Muffingate, perhaps.

The second perspective is related to the first, but, of course, much more personal. Living in Arlington, Va., I have a number of friends and neighbors who work for the government — indirectly, as contractors and consultants, and also directly, as federal employees. All of them are hard-working professionals who take their jobs seriously, and to see this controversy used as an occasion to mutter — on talk radio and blogs and comments pages — about lazy, overpaid government bureaucrats is upsetting. As if government employees shouldn’t be meeting at all, anywhere, under any circumstances, because they serve at the pleasure of taxpayers.

Were elements of this meeting out of line? Yes, absolutely. Some of it was crazy tone-deaf; some of it was outlandish. But, as the Society of Government Meeting Professionals notes in its response:

[T]his apparent instance of excessive spending is newsworthy in part because it’s unusual. … The federal government maintains strict rules regarding spending and ethics when it comes to travel and, as in this case, when those rules are broken those responsible should be held accountable. The entire government meetings industry should not be judged on this one grossly “over the top” executed event. It clearly demonstrates the importance of agencies having a professional meeting planner versed in the proper processes of solicitation, contract awards and event execution, as required by government policy, the procurement process and ethical conduct standards.

Serious professionals need serious meetings, and serious meetings cost money — more than most people realize, I think.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.