GSA Chief Resigns cuz of a mindreader, a clown and a comedian?

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Martha Johnson has resigned from her post as the chief of the General Services Administration. The GSA is a branch of the US government that, well, provides services of a general nature to the other branches of government. Until the Bush Administration, the GSA was generally supposed to be fairly non-partisan, but under Bush, was re-crafted to be more political with their head at that time (Lurita Doan) recommended by a special counsel for disciplinary action. There have been other controversies in the past as well.

Moments ago, Johnson announced her resignation and two other higher-ups, Robert Peck and Stephen Leeds, were fired. Other heads are on the block. The problem? It has something to do with a conference. According to the Washington Post

Organizers spent $835,000 on the event, which was attended by 300 employees. The expenses included $147,000 in airfare and lodging at the hotel for six planning trips by a team of organizers. Among the other expenses were $3,200 for a mind reader; $6,300 on commemorative coin set displayed in velvet boxes and $75,000 on a training exercise to build a bicycle.

Before we go all crazy on this, I do want to make what I think is an important point. Every now and then somebody gets in trouble for something related to a conference, and it is often improper to do so, and often amounts to senseless armwaving. The fact that people actually left the GSA over this particular conference indicates that this may not be the case here, but I think it is still important to put the claims in perspective, in a sensible, rational, and skeptical manner.

For example, the Principal and administrators of a school district here in the Twin Cities recently got in trouble for a conference in which people who went to the Orlando event also visited Disney Land. No school district money was spent on the trip to Disney Land. The trip was done on personal time, not instead of the conference. The members of the school district attended the conference properly. Yet, because they went to Meet the Mouse while they were in Orlando for a national conference, they were vilified, people were put on leave, lots of people were almost fired. An expensive and thorough investigation was carried out, and as far as I know the whole issue was dropped. It turns out that even teachers and other public school employees are not actually slaves. They can do what they like on their own time. When people travel to a conference, they are expected to spend considerable time conferencing, but it is also normal for them to spend some time, at some conferences, doing other stuff that they can do at the venue being visited.

In this case, the case of the GSA, the Washington Post breathlessly reports that $147,000 was spent on airfare and lodging. Well, if you have conference, people generally fly to it, and they usually stay in lodging. There were 300 GSA people at this conference. This means that they spent $490 per person on air fair and lodging. THAT’S CHEAP, PEOPLE!!! Depending on where they went, where they stayed, that’s dirt cheap. One must ask: Were all these employees in Washington DC, and if so, did they all travel to Vegas for a conference that only they attended? If so, then perhaps they wasted every dollar of that $147,000, if in fact there was no reason for them to go somewhere. If, on the other hand, this was a national conference with people coming from all over, and the GSA got 300 people from all over the country into one room, or sent 300 people to a single venue at which others attended, for less than $500 a pop, then that’s good. The report in the Post does not provide sufficient detail to assess this, but tellingly and annoyingly, the report does not ask the question, either.

I was at a conference recently that was regarded by all of those who attended as one of the best conferences they’ve ever been to. We had a comedian. The GSA also apparently had a comedian. But the GSA head must resign,and the people who organized ScienceOnline 2012, at which The Science Comedian (yes, we have one … someday perhaps we’ll have two!) performed are applauded for their efforts. I would submit that having a comedian at a conference, per se, is not a crime. Depending on the comedian, of course.

See the point here? It is pretty easy to look at a conference, pull out a few facts, vilify the people who organized it, demonize those who attended, and get all bent out of shape over nothing, or at least very little.

I’m not saying that this GSA conference was OK. I have no idea if it was or not. But I am saying that when we look more closely at these kinds of complaints, about conferences, they are often not as advertised.

ScienceOnline 2012 did not have a mindreader, though. Maybe next year!

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11 thoughts on “GSA Chief Resigns cuz of a mindreader, a clown and a comedian?

  1. Points well spoken Greg. Another great post. One that shows how things at first may not be what they seem. Cheers!

  2. I think you misread the article. $147K was spend on lodging and airfare for just 6 (six) organizers. That’s over $24K per person.
    “Expenses included $147,000 in airfare and lodging for six planning trips for the organizers, the Post reports.”

  3. Emelie, I see your telling me “I read it wrong: and raise you one “you read it wrong” … It was six organizing trips for teams of organizers.

    So, if there were 100 organizers on each organizing trip …

    ImaginesABeach: Thanks for that link! I couldn’t find it.

    The educators at that conference did nothing wrong. It is totally normal to skip out on parts of conferences. They skipped out of sessions on the afternoon of the second day. If that is a problem, then almost everyone who has ever gone to conferences on a regular basis needs to lose their jobs RIGHT NOW.

    My wife is a teacher. This week, she is putting in solid 6 hour days (including Saturday and Sunday of last weekend). This is spring break. NOrmally, it woudl be 12 hour days five days a week. Except summer, during which she works for about three solid full time weeks, none of it paid for.

    The people who brought this complaint against the teachers should be flogged.

    But teachers are not treated as normal people.

  4. Ok, let us assume that the airfare, etc. at $147,000 was for 300 attendees. On Wikipedia, they list another $85,100 for other expenses which could be probable. My question is that the total was for this trip $$822,000, so what constitutes the remaining $$589,900 – that is what is suspicious to me.

  5. The clowns?

    A typical conference might cost between 500 and 1000 bucks per person not counting travel and lodging, but including one food, a banquet, etc.

  6. $2,783 per person sounds like a big number as no mention of airfair or lodging for atendies was made however such numbers are common in for profit confences that sell booth space. I wonder what the specifics are that people are leaving.

  7. The thing is, it is likely that this particular case is an example of actual misuse of funds; three people plus are loosing their jobs. My point is simply that when people, often the press, start to babble about this sort of thing the baseline is often ignored. So, “Peron spent 1000 on a thing!” ignores the fact that “thing” normally cost 500, so really, they only overreached by half.

  8. “For example, the Principal and administrators of a school district here in the Twin Cities recently got in trouble for a conference in which people who went to the Orlando event also visited Disney Land. No school district money was spent on the trip to Disney Land.”

    Tiny little correction: Disney World is the one in Orlando, FL. Disneyland is the one in Anaheim, CA. 🙂

  9. Yeah, while reading your excerpt, I was thinking the same thing. Conference expenses are, well, expensive. Big numbers do not necessarily mean mismanagement.

    On the other hand, I really have to wonder what this mind reader was all about. And the commemorative coin thing deserves some explanation. Of course, perhaps it all does have an explanation — I agree completely that the reporter is not asking the right questions.

    Tiny little correction: Disney World is the one in Orlando, FL. Disneyland is the one in Anaheim, CA.

    No no, that was the controversy — they went all the way to California during a conference in Florida! ;p

  10. I suggest people follow the link in @2, then click on the first link in that article, which brings up a pdf of the OIG investigation of the conference. Not WashPo’s, not NYT’s, the GSA’s own office of Inspector General report.

    Short summary: GSA planners broke multiple federal regulations having to do with conference expenditures.

    So, this is not just a case of (hotel+taxes+airfare+per diem)x 300 = surprisingly big number. It appears to be actual fraud and waste, such as paying the hotel under the table to get them to lower their hotel rate to the GSA allowable rate.

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