Your Tax Dollars at Work (Conference Edition)
Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn
Some elements of DoD are in a mad data scramble, trying to determine how much money was spent on conferences and meetings last year.
It may sound like something out of a John Cleese management training video, but the number-crunching is no joke. Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, a persistent critic of government waste, send a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates in mid-June, requesting a summary of his department's conference activity between October 1 2006 and May 31st of this year. According to Mr. Coburn, the DoD response must include the following data:
-- Total amount spent by the Defense Department and its agencies on conferences during the referenced period, including general support, programming, staff salaries, travel and other related cots.
--A full listing of each conference that received DoD support, including meeting location, dates, the number of employees who attended, the sponsor of the conference, and the total cost of the event.
--The total number of conferences in which Defense Department personnel participated, and the total number of employees who participated
Coburn, who serves as the ranking member of the Senate subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information and International Security, apparently believes that the Pentagon is spending too much money on meetings and conferences. He made a similar request for Fiscal Year 2005, and is tracking the growth in that element of the DoD budget. The Pentagon was supposed to submit its response to Senator Coburn by July 16th, but some military elements were still processing the request this week. With a little luck, Mr. Coburn may get the requested data after Labor Day.
You're probably asking the same thing Senator Coburn wants to know: just how much does the military spend on conferences? We obtained a copy of last year's response (compiled by the Defense Department's Comptroller General), which indicates that DoD spent just over $79 million dollars on meetings and conferences in FY' 05; estimates for the following year put that expenditure at $91.4 million, a 15% increase.
Spending by the military services and other DoD components generally followed the upward trend, with some exceptions. The Army's FY '06 budget for conferences is pegged at $27.6 million, a 21% increase over the previous year. Navy spending in that category more than doubled (from $8.9 million to $15.1 million), but the Marines showed the largest increase; their spending for conferences and meetings soared from $450,000 in FY '05, to just over $2 million in FY '06--a 361% increase. The Air Force conference outlays actually decreased during the same period, as did spending for "defense-wide" conferences. DoD figures show that the Air Force spends about $20 million a year on conferences, while defense-wide forums require $26 million in annual expenditures.
In an era of $500-billion dollar defense budgets, $91 million is relative chump change--enough to fund the Iraq War for about five hours, or just a fraction of what DoD spends on an annual basis. And, we'll spare you the usual, bleeding heart analogies about how much health care or how many school books we could purchase with that money. Fact is, many of the conferences and meetings are vital, allowing participants to share ideas and work on programs that have a direct impact on combat capabilities. If a particular forum gets more MRAP vehicles in the field sooner, it's probably worth the cost, even if it's held in a "choice" location, with a golf course nearby.
But we also commend Senator Coburn for his latest waste-busting effort. In recent years, the Pentagon has invested heavily in state-of-the-art video-teleconferencing (VTC) and other information-sharing technologies. Many--if not, most--DoD facilities have an "unclassified" VTC facilities, and quite a few have secure video links that allow transmission of classified material as well. The investment wasn't designed to end face-to-face conferences and similar gatherings, but it was supposed to hold the line on their growth--and the associated travel costs.
Figure it this way: send a military member or DoD civilian "on the road" for a week, and the government has a travel bill of roughly $1,000, including air fare, rental car, hotel and per diem. Send that same individual to a "high cost" area like Washington, D.C., Europe, or the Far East, and the cost goes even higher. Then, multiply the "individual" bill by 12, 20, 40, or 60--the number of people that participate in a single conference, and you can see where that $79 or $90 million budget comes from.
Senator Coburn is asking the right question: if the Defense Department has access to advanced communications and information-sharing technology, does it really need to spend that much on conferences? The answer to that one seems clear, with an equally obvious caveat: DoD can get much more "bang" for its meeting buck by emphasizing forums that actually matter, and don't merely occupy an annual slot on a conference center calendar.
For example, we know of an intel analytical group that meets at least once a month by VTC, but still holds a yearly conference in a warm, sunny location. Is that worth the expense? Or, can you justify renting an expensive, "off-site" facility for a NATO working group meeting that was (actually) a "job audition" for a DoD civilian, hoping to impress his European counterparts.
In our experience, there is plenty of fat that can be trimmed from the Pentagon's conference budget. But making those cuts is another matter altogether. Once on the schedule, these DoD meetings and forums tend to take on a life of their own, becoming an annual (or semi-annual) rite for participants, particularly if the conference is held in a garden spot, preferably near a golf course.