Saturday, June 2, 2012

GSA: Do As I Say And Not As I Do

It was in back April when the stories of GSA waste, fraud and abuse started breaking, the most infamous among them being the $823,000 boondoggle to Las Vegas for 300 employees of GSA’s Western Regions, a convention to engage in “team building”.  It is old news by now. 

The GSA made the headlines again in the last couple of days, this time with revelations that work-at-home employees had somehow managed to rack up $750,000 in travel expenses over a nine month period.   This was even too much for Jeff Neely, the former head of the GSA’s Pacific Rim Region and the infamous mastermind behind the kumbaya fest in Las Vegas.

“OMG,” wrote Neely in an email about the high ranking employees who were working from home but nonetheless claiming travel expenses.  "100 virtuals and most of them with some pretty serious grades. Well this is a fine mess we've gotten ourselves into."

Ironically enough, I am not sure these particular expenditures are so outrageous.  The fact that we are dealing with work-at-home employees has nothing to do with whether the nature of their job requires travel to other cities.  Assuming it does, $7500 per person in a nine month period may be a little high, but certainly not scandalous.  It depends on the number and length of the trips, whether they were all legitimate for conducting government business, and whether they followed the  Federal Travel Regulations (FTR), the rules that GSA itself issues for the reimbursement of all U.S. Government travel.

That being said, it is these travel regulations and other rules issued by agency that makes the GSA’s waste, fraud and abuse so galling.  In a classic case of “Do as I say but not as I do,” the FTRs are a bureaucrat’s dream and a government traveler’s nightmare. 

Believe you me, traveling for the U.S. government is no picnic, though it has gotten a tad better over the years.  I remember when I first started traveling for the government, back in 1985, we were given $75 a day to cover hotel, meals and incidentals.  That did not get you very far, especially in expensive urban centers like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, etc. (And it was the same rate, no matter what the city.).  In order to not go beyond the limit, some travelers ended up staying in some “happy sheets”, by-the-hour hotels.

Things have improved since then, with the government now making variable allowances for lodging and meals and incidentals, depending on the city and the cost of living therein.  Usually the reimbursement rates are reasonable.  For example, the lodging allowance is in keeping with the government rates that GSA negotiates with major hotel chains.  The only problem is that hotels sell only so many rooms at government rate, so if they are sold out on government rate rooms or if a major convention drives down room availability and drives up the price, then you are out of luck and may have to eat the difference (Unless you care to file a ton of paperwork to justify actual expense" reimbursement) . 

Even for a routine reimbursement, the amount of time and effort expended for the traveler to prepare the paperwork and for an army of accountants and budget analysts to audit and make sure everything is processed according to the dictates of the 308 page FTR makes me wonder how much money the government is saving even if the rules are followed.

The GSA’s Las Vegas boondoggle is particularly offensive to government travelers like me, because in general the government is very exacting and a bit stingy when it comes to reimbursing travel expenses, at least to those of us who have to follow the rules and fight with voucher examiners who question every last penny we submit for reimbursement.  My question is how does the GSA get away with it?  Oh, I forgot.  Those that make the rules don’t necessarily have to follow them.  

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