DoD places new restrictions on conferences

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The Defense Department is increasing its oversight of conference spending and hightening the seniority of of those involved in the approval process as federal conference-related costs come under greater scrutiny.

In a Sept. 29 memorandum (.pdf), Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter writes that the DoD is switching to its own set of conference guidelines and will abandon the use of related sections in a May 2012 Office of Management and Budget memo (.pdf).

Under the new guidelines, the secretary and deputy secretary of defense "are accountable for all of the Department's conference related activities" and will oversee all DoD conference policies and maintain visibility for the conduct of conferences hosted by the DoD or attended by DoD employees.

Federal conferences have come increased scrutiny this year following revelations of dubious spending by the General Services Administration and the Veterans Affairs Department. Last week the VA office of inspector general said VA conference costs in summer 2011 alone resulted in more than $760,000 worth of questionable costs.

To manage the control and create visibility with reporting, the deputy secretary is building out a tiered approval group to assist with the oversight and approval of these conferences. The group consists of a set of various DoD senior leaders – from secretaries and under secretaries to directors and deputy commanders – that will "have the authority to approve and grant waivers in exceptional circumstances, as required by the OMB memo."

Approval abilities within the group break down in accordance to position and conference costs. Secretaries and under secretaries can approve of conferences costing more than $500,000, while other officials can approve various conferences costing less than $500,000 and can delegate approval authority for conferences costing less than $100,000.

The memo specifically states that the approval process must confirm that a physical conference setting is necessary, as opposed to webinars, conference calls, or online screen sharing services. The memo also notes that "entertainment-related expenses are expressly prohibited as part of DoD conferences" and approval authorities must ensure that no fees, travel disbursements or conference costs be used to pay entertainment expenses.

The goal of these guidelines is not specifically to limit the number of conferences or impact operations Carter writes, but "to ensure that conferences the Department sponsors are executed in a responsible manner." 

For more:
- download the DoD memorandum (.pdf)

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