White House Eases Restrictions on Meeting Attendance by Government Employees

White House 370x200

Although President Barack Obama has been a decidedly pro-travel president -- he opened up travel to Cuba, for example, and launched the country's first-ever National Travel and Tourism Strategy -- he hasn't always seen eye to eye with the meetings industry. In 2009, for instance, he denounced federal employees for attending "junkets" in Las Vegas, and in 2012 his Administration enacted policies restricting government travel amid allegations of inappropriate conference spending by federal employees.

With only a month in office remaining, however, the president is mending fences: Last month, Obama's U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) announced new, more relaxed guidelines for federal spending on conferences.

Laid out in OMB Memorandum M-17-08, the new guidelines:

• Establish approval and oversight criteria only for government-hosted and -sponsored meetings, giving agencies more flexibility for approving employee travel to and attendance at non-federal events;

• Allow agencies to preapprove attendance at known recurring conferences so government attendees can more easily take advantage of early-bird registration discounts;

• Provide government agencies the leeway to co-locate events with non-federal conferences where and when it makes sense to do so; and

• Fail to renew funding caps that were established in 2012, which expired at the end of FY2016.

"Conferences play an important role in the federal government, whether by enabling the sharing of knowledge among large groups, bringing together dispersed communities, or providing opportunities for interaction, collaboration, and presenting cutting-edge work," OMB stated in a memo to federal agencies.

Although agencies have saved approximately $30 million in conference spending since 2012 as a result of government restrictions on travel, the Administration acknowledged that its previous policy may have prevented some agencies from pursuing their missions.

"These changes incorporate the lessons learned over the past several years and recognize the resulting actions that agencies have taken during that time," OMB continued. "These changes also respond to challenges agencies faced as a result of [previous OMB policies], including reduced opportunities to perform useful agency functions; present scientific findings and innovations; train, recruit, and retain employees; or share best practices."

The meetings industry was quick to praise Obama and OMB for their support, but exercised caution ahead of President-Elect Donald Trump's January inauguration.

"This update provides many of the process changes that members of the association community have been asking the Administration to make since 2012," said Jim Clarke, senior vice president of public policy at ASAE. "While we've seen real progress in terms of senior government officials and lawmakers recognizing the value of meetings, we'll need to continue to emphasize and cultivate this understanding with the new Administration."

Up your meetings-industry IQ. Check out the latest edition of 30 Seconds to Smart!