Wasted: Government Conferences with Big, Huge, Scary Bills

A few months back, the nation was outraged to hear about the money spent on a conference for the GSA (the Federal General Services Administration).  They put on a conference that managed to spend almost a million dollars – on party favors, trinkets, psychics, and other such baloney.  Somehow, through all the bureaucracy required in this government agency, a whole heck of a lot of unnecessary, insultingly wasteful activities and things were authorized and enjoyed.  It’s really quite shameful.

For more information on the absurdity of the GSA Conference Scandal, visit the Huffington Post.

Because this was such a massive scandal and because it was grotesquely wasteful, I hoped it was an isolated incident.  It was not.  Not even close.

I was sad to hear that the VA is now under investigation for a similar scandal, though this seems even worse.  The alleged number I keep hearing is … $5 Million Dollars.  As in, $1,000,000 times FIVE.  As in, $5,000,000.00.

Not only is this number shocking, the fact that it was approved in such a bureaucratically controlled system is also shocking.  Think about all the different people who had to authorize that.  Think of all the different people who emailed each other about.  In my experience, bureaucracy, through its inefficient back-and-forth, prevents a lot of big waste.  Sure, it wastes a lot of time because people are going back and forth, and it can be incredibly frustrating.  Yet, it does somehow manage to keep wasteful spending away a good amount of the time.  I mean, the last time I had to buy bubbles for work, I had to prove in three different ways that it had a business purpose.  How does this happen?  How could enough people have thought this was okay?  How could anyone spend $5,000,000 on two conferences?

Ahh!  Shouldn’t this be stealing?  Am I just crotchety?

They somehow spent $5 million on two conferences.  This is so much money.  This is money that could have created jobs, facilities for patients, or supplies for staff members.  These could have been research dollars.  That money could have funded so many good things that would have impacted VA patients, staff, and students.  Instead, that money went towards two internal conferences.

These weren’t even national conferences where information, best practices, and cutting-edge research could be shared. These were internal staff conferences about procedures, policies, and other easily emailed stuff.  Team building should not cost millions of dollars.  You can build a team with talking.  You can build a team by going hiking.  You should never waste that much money just to have a giant meeting.  It is absurdly irresponsible.  It is disrespectful.  It is shocking.  It is sad.

Maybe you are asking yourself, “How much does a normal conference cost?”  As someone who has planned both state and national conferences, I can confidently say, “A hell of a lot less than $2,500,000.”  To get specific, I believe a national conference with 500 attendees can easily be planned for under $100,000 a day – that would cover food, facilities, materials, even some “splash” items, honorariums (payment to speakers), and lodging for some of the guests.  That’s $200 per person.  That’s reasonable.  That’s possible.

I strongly believe that frugality is next to cleanliness (I won’t get into godliness). I also strongly believe that government agencies should be frugal, very frugal.  Now, government employees should be paid fairly, should receive benefits, and should be happy and comfortable; I do not believe we should expect people to sacrifice their paychecks to work for the government.  That said, I don’t think the government should approve stupid conferences that cost so much they will eventually cost someone their salary.  The money wasted on frivolous things at a conference is money that will never go to an employee.  In a time of major lay-offs, controversy over programs that help people, and massive deficits, I expect government agencies to spend smartly.

I would rather see money go towards any number of social programs that benefit people’s lives.  I highly doubt that those employees’ lives were deeply affected by these conferences.  I would wager that the employees could have learned all the same information for a lot less money.

Money should be going to schools, medicine, research, food, welfare, police, teachers, benefits, and many, many other programs – not conferences.

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