Federal Workers Barred Just Before Weather Conference

Roughly 80 National Weather Service employees couldn't travel after the Department of Commerce failed to authorize funding.

This week’s annual meeting of the National Weather Association could best be described, as, well … stormy.

Despite advances in technology, face-to-face interaction is still a necessity for developing professional relationships and building connections across our communities.

Last week, one of the conference’s largest contingents — employees of the National Weather Service (NWS) — found out they couldn’t attend after the Department of Commerce, the parent agency of the group, failed to approve more than $200,000 in funding for travel to the conference, forcing a 65 percent cut in the agency’s travel budget for the meeting, according to The Washington Post.

Many attendees filed months ago for funding for the conference, taking place from October 6 to 11 in Madison, Wisconsin, only to find out just before the conference that they couldn’t go.

As a result, just 30 attendees came from NWS, a steep decline from the 130 who attended last year. Neither NWS or the Department of Commerce has explained why the funding wasn’t approved or disapproved in a timely fashion.

The conflict may be the first major manifestation of new rules implemented by the federal government limiting spending on conferences in the wake of the Government Spending Accountability Act, passed after a General Services Administration conference in 2010 drew congressional attention.

The rules that the situation fell under, however, were internal Department of Commerce regulations [PDF] on group travel exceeding $75,000, which require department approval. As of last Friday, approval had not been granted, according to an internal email seen by the Post.

Plan B: Teleconferencing

This situation, which cost the conference roughly 20 percent of its attendees and could have a negative financial impact on the association, led to a bit of scrambling for conference organizers: Many of the presentations were supposed to be led by NWS employees, and some of them were stuck at home, using the remote-conferencing tool GoToMeeting. (Unfortunately, the association was unable to reciprocate the gesture for people who wanted to watch at home.)

“We had a good first day and used GoToMeeting to allow NWS speakers to give their talks,” the association’s president, Bruce Thomas, explained to the Post. “We are dealing with this in good spirit.”

The conference website features multiple messages apologizing to attendees for the situation.

“Hopefully the situation in Madison will not recur at NWA meetings in the future,” wrote program chair Jordan Gerth. “Despite advances in technology, face-to-face interaction is still a necessity for developing professional relationships and building connections across our communities.”

Let’s say the worst happens at your annual event. Would you have handled it like the NWA did?

(TMG archive photo)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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