When a handful of people from GSA became famous for waste and fraud in a lavish conference in Las Vegas, DoD was forced to peer inside a can of worms. As we grappled with providing support to two simultaneous war fronts, the increased budgets fueled an increase in Conferences by Government and other Industry/Government partnerships, such as AFCEA and NDIA. The benefits from these events can be numerous: many great minds can be gathered in one place (usually a really NICE place) to receive updates on DoD matters, to view the exhibits of existing and upcoming technologies, and to network and solve problems. Now, however, as we face budget cuts associated with the ramp-down (and the threat of sequestration), these conferences are undergoing an exacting scrutiny.
Usually, making a very large organization with a deeply entrenched culture (like DoD) change is quite difficult. But one thing DoD does well: it knows how to swing the rudder hard left or hard right. I have always found it interesting how they do that. Usually it starts with a “data call” that seems innocuous and is fairly straightforward: such as a summary of conferences hosted and attended, and a general idea of the costs involved. Then, it’s followed up by ANOTHER data call, in much more detail, and drilling down on more of the specifics. Then, yet ANOTHER data call full of nefarious inferences… and by that point, no one wants to travel anywhere or host anything, lest they become an entry in the “data call”. In DoD, becoming an entry in one of these data calls can mean the end of your career.
Take a look at the Encyclopedia of Ethical Failures, published by DoD Office of General Counsel in July 2012 (located http://danariely.com/2012/12/01/the-encyclopedia-of-ethical-failure). Not only is the 164 page document a great read (who says DoD has no sense of humor!), but if you query “conference” you’ll find it referred to 22 times as the subject of Ethical Violations.
I suppose some correction was indeed needed. Looking at just one of the major DoD Conferences, the DISA Customer Partnership, you can see the trend pretty clearly. In 2008, I attended the DISA Customer Partnership Conference held at the Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort in Orlando, FL. My registration fee was $765.00 and included a full pass for the event and the “Disney Night Out” where a portion of the park was set-aside just for the Conventioneers. In 2009 it was held at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, and in 2010 it was held at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville TN (at least until it got flooded out by a freak storm). I always love these DISA conferences, and the main reason is I actually learn a TON! No really! There are so many opportunities to get program updates and learn the current trends and upcoming opportunities. But, this type of Grand Event is expensive, and probably not the best use of scarce resources.
So now exactly where do we stand on this issue? Are Conferences DEAD? Are they discouraged? Look at the Deputy Chief Management Office (DCMO) website for the full list of hoops that must now be jumped through (http://dcmo.defense.gov/products-and-services/conference-policies-controls/index.html). There’s the 14 page “Cost of Hosting an Event Guidance Document”, or the 13 page “Cost of Attending an Event Guidance Document”. Or the DCMO Memo in May 2012.
I recently had the opportunity to visit this process first hand. I assisted a large Defense/Industry Organization plan and execute a conference for over 1000 attendees. Very quickly the agenda shaped up nicely and we were able to secure an outstanding speaker list of mostly senior Military Government coming from the DC area. We started working four months prior to the event to secure the needed “waiver” to enable DoN participation. (The conference was 80% DoN.) We had outstanding support from our local DoN Facility. Now comes the insanity:
Four months prior to the event, we were required to list all the DoN attendees coming in for the event. Anyone who has worked on a large conference knows that the Agenda is fluid up until about a month prior. Doing the best we could, we provided a list and priced out their travel (pure SWAG). Every week, as we added INVITED speakers and crossed off DECLINED speakers, we had to update this list and send it forward. This moving target was supposedly of interest to someone, since we would periodically check the “status” of the waiver and we were always reassured that it was “in the works and looked good”.
The Convention Center was rented, the Speakers were already committed, and their flights and hotels secured, and registration for 1000+ attendees was completed. The Under Secretary of the Navy, Robert O. Work HIMSELF signed the waiver approving DoN participation at 1700 on the 21st of November (the Wednesday before Thanksgiving). The conference started on Tuesday the 27th. At this point, what exactly could the Conference Planners do if the waiver was disapproved?
Anyone who has participated in a DoD/AFCEA/NDIA/etc. conference knows that, like any event, you get out of it what you put into it. Making it harder to attend might make each event more valuable to the attendee (limited resources usually causes us to sharpen our pencils and stretch our creative minds). But a Conference that is relevant to the current issues, modestly priced to enable maximum participation, and in a work-related location that doesn’t have slot machines or Disney Characters, will always be a worthwhile endeavor.