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Conference Crackdown Takes Toll on AUSA Event

Oct. 22, 2012 - 12:09PM   |  
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Organizers expect about 5,000 fewer attendees at this week’s Association of the United States Army (AUSA) annual meeting and exposition in Washington as the government cracks down on federal worker travel and conference spending.

Army Secretary John McHugh has given soldiers the OK to attend this year’s AUSA event, the largest military trade show in the U.S., but only after service officials pledged to significantly scale back exhibit hall space.

A map of the two-floor exhibit hall at the Washington Convention Center posted on the AUSA website in July showed the Army occupying 75 booths. The Army has since consolidated that into a single pavilion. In previous years, various Army commands had their own booths, which proved costly.

To make up for the reduction in booth space, event organizers have added Army demonstration and presentation areas, said Roger Thompson, a retired lieutenant general who leads the AUSA annual meeting committee.

“Actually, a lot of the Army’s message will still get out despite the fact that those exhibits aren’t there,” he said on “This Week in Defense News,” which aired Oct. 21.

The Army has allowed 400 people to use government funds to attend the show. In all, about 5,000 military, government civilian and foreign military officials are expected to attend, Thompson said.

“We believe that it’s a very viable event this year, and we fully expect to exceed 30,000” in attendance, he said.

That is about 5,000 fewer than AUSA said it expected in promotional material in September editions of the organization’s magazine. So far, Thompson said 26,000 people are pre-registered for the event, which begins Oct. 22.

Organizers expect a substantial number of Washington-area military members to attend.

“The impact is actually in the eye of the beholder because on the one end, they are not going to be doing some things, but all the key leaders in the Army will be at the annual meeting; they’ll be presenting and we expect most likely that they’ll be on the exhibit floor,” Thompson said.

The government placed restrictions on conference spending — whether the event is sponsored by a federal agency or private organization — this year after it was revealed the General Services Administration spent millions of taxpayer dollars on lavish events.

Since then, the Defense Department has issued its own guidance, calling for top-level reviews of all conference-related spending of more than $100,000. This has placed a target particularly on large military association trade shows.

Organizers say these events are cost-effective and facilitate discussions and professional development.

“It is done in a way that is no-nonsense, that is straightforward, upfront, not any frills of any kind with regard to magicians or those kinds of things that may have happened at other events,” Thompson said. “We still see it as a viable way for the Army [and] the military to do what it has to do. The message gets out, people get professionally developed and trained and there’s a lot of discussion that causes the Army to be stronger going forward.”

In September, the Air Force Association’s annual symposium attracted more than 8,000 people. One change organizers made at that event was to allow all military and government civilians to attend for free.

At the same time, the exhibit hall was scaled back from past levels.

AUSA officials expect the association’s winter symposium in Florida to take an attendance hit as a result of the stricter travel rules.

“We suspect that attendance on the military side will be down somewhat, but we still have a lot of key Army leaders giving key presentations on Army topics,” Thompson said. “We expect to have that event. We expect it to be a viable event, and we don’t see it going away.”

A New Approval Process

In late September, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter put in place a tiered approval process for DoD officials attending conferences hosted by the government or private sector.

Carter, who since June has been reviewing DoD attendance at all conferences on which the total cost is more than $500,000, issued guidance late last month allowing a select number of senior officials to grant waivers for personnel to attend.

Elizabeth McGrath, the Pentagon’s deputy chief management officer, has been reviewing all conferences and travel requests of between $100,000 and $500,000 since Carter issued the guidance in June.

The new guidance released in September supersedes the June orders, according to a defense official.

Service secretaries and undersecretaries can now grant waivers to host or attend conferences that cost more than $500,000. Assistant secretaries, the heads of major commands and some agency directors can approve attending or hosting events that cost $100,000 to $500,000. In the Air Force, the vice commanders of its major commands and deputy commanders at the combatant commands can grant waivers for events in this spending range.

The service secretaries or undersecretaries, combatant commanders, chief of the National Guard Bureau and defense undersecretaries can delegate a general or admiral or member of the senior executive service as the approval authority for conferences that cost less than $100,000.

Despite the delegation authority, McGrath must still be notified about a conference “that is considered to be particularly high visibility or exhibits unusual circumstances.”

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