Friday, August 03, 2007

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.


Anonymous said...

DC per diem was the best. In the late 90's, I was an E-3 and had a 4 week TDY to DC.

I think I banked over a grand...

apex said...

I think you're missing a significant point: Face-to-face meetings serve a purpose beyond what's on the agenda. People are people, and if you're trying to get someone to cooperate at a conference, a lot of the work is not done in the meetings, but in a restaurant in the evening or outside the door having a smoke. All the video equipment in the world is no substiture for networking of that kind.


West said...

I can think of some waste to cut out. Stop making DOD prepare long, difficult to assemble, edit and collate, distribute and defend reports on how much money you spent on conferences, just so some congressman can grandstand about waste.

Perhaps we can get a report done on how much it costs to prepare these reports. The we can have a conference on the preparation of conference reports. Then a congressman can demand a report on how much was spent on conferences regarding conference report preparation...

It's all horsepuckey. If Congress thinks DOD is spending too much money, simply give them less.

Core competencies. The DOD has specific tasks to accomplish, which presumably it does fairly well. Preparing reports on how much was spent on cocktail napkins is not one of them.

Boghie said...

If the DOD had their financials in order than summing up conference expenses from a centralized database - or, since the four branches still can't get together on one system than use four systems - should be short time work done at the Pentagon. Those expenses are coded by type and command. They should not even have to confer with subordinate commands.

But, they don't have viable financial management systems. Let’s face it, you don't get promoted for providing good support for the fighting troops - you get promoted for leading fighting troops. There is little or no respect for support personnel. Support commands are not viewed as force multipliers – a tank or plane is. And, contracting out has been a dismal failure as well – how many systems drag on forever to remain vaporware till the next ‘release’. I could name many. The Marine Corps is still running ancient and inflexible batch process system(s) for TAD, purchasing, and personnel management. They are still effectively mainframe based. And, many of those systems are stove pipe kiosks that require duplicate entry. It is so bad that each little command and battalion and platoon and department etc. uses little personal spreadsheets or databases or single user copies of Quicken. It is so bad that purchasing is shut down from mid-August through September 30 of each year because they cannot reliably commit, obligate, and expense a purchase in a mere month and a half. A business with such obsolete systems and processes would be bankrupt.

Therefore, Coburn’s request is a joke. The military cannot provide the numbers. If he audited the impending silly PowerPoint presentation he will quickly determine those sums (undoubtedly denoted to the penny) to be a SWAG.

By the way, if I were to hazard a guess I would postulate that a big chunk of the USMC conference bloat growth is a result of the NMCI contract. There are constant – but useless – conferences that accomplish little other than to reiterate that the USMC must still use ‘approved’ software from 1999 or whatever. And, sly conferees will discuss how to get new accounts built using one contract line item purchase instead of two!!! Yipeee!!!

Regret said...

"West" makes a good point, but unfortunately, the world don't work that way (DoD or otherwise). If you've got the ability to hold the American taxpayers "hostage" to demands for money during wartime (or for readiness during peacetime), as the DoD does, then the taxpayer must have oversight on how the money is spent. We've got zero ability to cut off funds during times of real crisis. All we're talking about here is hiring some accountants and keeping track of the money - just like every other organization must do. It won't shut down the primary mission [for which we are all grateful]... and worse, the reaction of people who say a) it's none of your business how we spend your money, or b) we have more important things to do, just make us all the more suspicious.