- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2014

A stay at a quaint inn nestled in the woods of Virginia. A visit to the lovely Harvard campus in Massachusetts. A trip to the ski slopes in the mountains of Colorado.

All on the taxpayer’s dime.

In fact, over four years the federal government spent $57 million to send top-level executives to training sessions — often hosted by private organizations at comfortable locales. The hope was that those at the top echelons of government would be able to improve their skills, hone efficiency and become better managers.

But federal investigators say few agencies questioned whether the training sessions were worth it and whether the executives were actually learning anything that applied to their jobs.

“The cost of these training sessions has raised questions about the value they provide to the federal workforce,” the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ watchdog arm, said in a report released this week.

The departments collect feedback from executives on how to improve the meetings, but few have followed federal statutes requiring them to look at whether the training meetings are helping the executives be better government employees.

“A majority of agencies do not have a formal process for evaluating the impact of training on the agency’s performance goals and mission,” the GAO said.

For letting top executives take expensive trips without having any idea whether the excursions benefit taxpayers, the federal government’s various agencies and departments win this week’s Golden Hammer, a distinction given by The Washington Times to examples of fiscal waste, fraud, abuse or mismanagement.

The $57 million is a guess from filed federal reports, but the GAO noted that “agencies lack complete and reliable data on the cost of external executive training and are likely underreporting costs.” Several agencies did not report travel expenses or the costs of course materials, investigators said, noting that it has been seven years since agencies were required to report their actual expenses for the conferences.

In an era of fiscal belt-tightening, spending on meetings has come under increased scrutiny, especially after it was revealed that the General Services Administration spent $823,000 on a lavish conference in Las Vegas in 2010 that included food, drink, entertainment and souvenirs.

The most common training sessions were for the Office of Personnel Management. The GAO said the agency needs to develop guidelines to better evaluate whether training is effective and require departments to report the costs of the programs.

“By not establishing a timeframe for improving the reliability of executive training cost data, OPM may be missing an opportunity to better position itself to hold agencies accountable for improving the data,” investigators said.

OPM officials said they agree with the GAO and have taken steps that include publishing a step-by-step guide on how to assess the worthiness of training programs along with suggestions for reducing costs.

“OPM is actively involved in assisting agencies in evaluating the impact of executive training,” a response from the agency said. “OPM understands the potential efficiencies and has hosted several executive development programs,” including several at no cost to other departments.

GAO investigators spoke with several officials in charge of personnel for their departments who said that some of the best ways to reduce the cost and time of training were to either conduct it within the agency or explore options to do it online.

The Veterans Affairs Department has started in-house leadership training in which employees “can participate either in person or online.” With coaching, the cost is about $2,100 per person. Without the coaching, it’s $850.

That stands in contrast to the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Senior Executive Fellows Program at $18,000, the Center for Creative Leadership’s Leadership at the Peak program in Colorado for $9,000, the Brookings Institution’s Executive Leadership for America course in Virginia at $6,000, and the OPM’s Leadership for a Democratic Society at a whopping $20,000 per person. The government has paid to send multiple executives to all of these programs.

Investigators also noted that alternative methods would take less time out of the executives’ schedules, “rather than requiring them to set aside their normal job responsibilities for a number of months to attend training.”

Other department executives said OPM should reduce the price of the training it offers to fellow government employees.

“OPM is trying to reduce agency training costs by bringing courses closer to agency offices and by using free space for training rather than renting sites,” investigators said.

The GAO said difficulty can arise with “the complexity of directly linking training and development programs to improved individual and organizational performance,” but that “without conducting higher levels of evaluation, agencies are missing information that could help them make more effective training investment decisions.”

• Phillip Swarts can be reached at pswarts@washingtontimes.com.

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