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August 8, 2012

Experts:"GSA broke the rules, but the rules are not broken"

The United States' General Services Administration was involved in Congressional hearings last week, several of which focused on meetings and events-and which may have a long-lasting impact on the meetings and events industry. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said that investigators looked at 77 different award ceremonies held by the GSA around the country, which Rep. John Mica (R-FL) said spent "too much," some as high as $2,200 a person.


Now that Congress has recessed for the rest of the summer, both the governmental groups and the private-sector meetings and events industries are taking stock of the situation and figuring out what to do next.

The Legislation

Jim Clarke, Senior Vice President, Public Policy at the American Society of Association Executives, noted in a public letter that legislation addressing the GSA scandal is still pending. The House Government Reform and Oversight Committee passed HR 4631, "the GSA Act of 2012," which incorporated language designed to protect meetings and events that involve government employees and organizations. "While we have made considerable progress convincing Congress of our legitimate concerns, we are not out of the woods," he said in the statement. "The onerous provisions are still contained in two bills, S 1789, ‘the 21st Century Postal Service Act of 2012' passed by the Senate and HR 2146, ‘the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2012' passed by the House."


But Clarke is still optimistic about the impact ASAE and the meetings community as a whole has had on . "Specifically, we have educated many members of Congress on the unintended consequences contained in these proposals that would affect many association meetings and conferences and that would unreasonably restrict communications with federal agencies."

The Issues

Roger Rickard, founder of Voices in Advocacy, notes that while the hearings covered several different issues, only two focused on meetings and conferences. "The rest were on buildings and GSA mismanagement," he told International Meetings Review. "They're looking at waste-not the meetings industry, or even GSA meetings."

But, he acknowledges, the meetings industry as a whole can look bad if government agencies spend recklessly, and if that recklessness makes it into the media during an election year. "If they start to find that there was waste and fraud in other areas, then you could see it shift into a real attack on government meetings," he says. "The mainstream media is looking for stories like this in an election year, because it's good copy to be able to talk about how the average citizen's tax dollars are being wasted by the government...We believe in the industry, and rightfully so, that 99.9 percent of all government meetings are run according to policy and procedures and cost-control factors that are already in place." But just as with any group, he adds, people will sometimes break the rules. "The GSA broke the rules, but the rules themselves are not broken," Rickard emphasizes. "The reason this is even an issue is that the system worked. There was an audit that is periodically done on everything in government, and the auditors caught the misuse. We should be proud that they caught it."

Karen Shackman of Shackman Associates New York (www.shackmanassociates.com),, a Manhattan-based DMC who penned an open letter to politicians in the wake of the scandal, says that almost all of clients are looking for better prices and reaching agreements that make deals sweeter. "People are challenging us," she told International Meetings Review. "Nobody in the non-GSA world are taking prices as standard. Everybody is looking for value-adds." The GSA, however, did not effectively haggle or negotiate prices or perks, which lead to soaring prices. "They were not upheld to same standards that the private industry was upheld to during the economic crisis," she says. "The value of what they were buying was not properly vetted, so a lot of money was spent without a real basis of understanding value." Those kinds of meetings have been scaled back, she adds.

The Impact

During the hearings, the GSA released a statement announcing that it had canceled 37 upcoming meetings and conferences, which Shackman calls a "kneejerk reaction" in the short term. "In the long run, they will have internal reflection in terms of how to be more effective," she predicts.

Rickard agrees, noting that by canceling these meetings, the GSA may have impacted the communities that were depending on the revenue the conferences would generate. "The question really is, did they take that into account, and do they care? I can't say if they care, but I don't think it was taken into account...They have to worry about themselves first, and that's what they're doing. They're not thinking about local communities. It's a perception issue, and they don't want to be further in the spotlight.

"The thing we should constantly think about is that it was a meeting," Rickard says of the hearing. "Congress, by its nature, is a meeting. We have to focus on the fact that the only way they can be successful is by meeting, sharing information, learning more, bringing experts in and evaluating how it all affects the business of government. Without those meetings, they would not be successful. They must evaluate other meetings and see value they have."

The important thing to remember, he says, is that this whole issue (and the hearings in general) is not a "witch hunt" into the meetings industry. "I think it's a politically charged, election-year attack on waste and fraud," he says. "This is not a blanket condemnation of the whole industry."



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