GSA Scandal: A Retreat? No, Just a Pricey Party

GSA Scandal: A Retreat? No, Just a Pricey Party

REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Why on earth did the GSA host a management retreat? Performance-based management is clearly not something the Federal government embraces.  Spending money on non-essential events during a recession is proof of that.  That's why it seems so ludicrous that the GSA hosted a management retreat in 2010 and spent close to $900,000 taxpayer dollars.

Management retreats are among the pillars of the corporate world.  Executives share information and goals across business units with the purpose of driving more innovation, productivity, and profitability.  The retreat, therefore, should result in higher performance measured by reviews, promotions, or -- in the case of poor performance -- layoffs.  (Have you ever heard of a Federal agency doing a clean sweep of underperforming employees?)

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At these events people also bond and let their hair down, play golf or tennis, break bread, and have fun.  Bonding supposedly breaks down the walls of department "silos" and fosters more cross-pollination of ideas and efficiencies. 

The GSA didn't host a management retreat -- it hosted a very expensive party for employees who were wined and dined and entertained.  If they were pumping themselves up to drive more revenue from advertisers, to develop new products to add to their suite of consumer goods, to garner greater market share for their services -- it might be understandable. But that's not what bureaucrats do. 

What's troubling is not just that the GSA spent the money and then awarded Jeff Neely, the senior official who organized the conference a $9,000 bonus. It's that the GSA is not the only agency that budgets and hosts these events, albeit not so lavishly.  Most conform to the ethical rules and regulations set forth by Congress, the true champions of fighting government waste, fraud and abuse. 

By contrast, the private sector management conference or retreat would either be eliminated or vastly scaled back if a company had not met financial expectations. Not so for GSA or hosts of other federal agencies that hold annual retreats. They never got the memo from the Obama administration or the Federal Reserve that during a financial crisis, government agencies should reduce spending.

When companies in the private sector are under financial pressure – like hotel chains that lost business because of canceled corporate retreats – they downscale their internal events and communications. Employees get the message that times are tight, that raises will be small, that layoff’s are possible and that everyone has to pull together to pull the company out of the hole. 

Taking a page out of the private sector playbook and applying it to government bureaucracies is a little like watching a baseball game without an umpire. The GSA has a penchant for misappropriating funds. In 2011, Neely took his wife to Hawaii, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands for her birthday.  Whoever signed the expense account didn’t say a peep.  

The new GSA website touts itself as a resource for business and consumers and offers “information on money management, scams, Federal benefits.” We know about their expertise in the first two categories, but few know about the benefits, which includes, “providing high-quality childcare facilities to federal employees and citizens.”  Clearly, childcare is not government waste. It is, however, a government entitlement that few companies in the private sector can match.

Finally, there are measurable outcomes of a well-planned management retreat. Janet Britcher, President of Transformation Management, a Boston consulting company, says they include a clear purpose, quality dialogue, individual impact, and concrete follow-up.

Leaders hold a retreat when there is a compelling business reason to create a new result with all the brains in the room – whether that’s the executive team, a newly formed department, or the entire company. A retreat is the right forum for a significant business challenge that will affect the company’s success, a challenge that will benefit from being addressed by the combined intelligence of the team members. If stellar results are being created with current operating procedures, generally there’s no need for a retreat.

Next year, let’s hope the GSA books a conference room and orders in.