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by Padraic Gilligan, VP, Industry Relations MCI and VP Ovation Global DMC

Merton’s Law

An infestation of mink was playing havoc with the eco-system of a rural area so, to encourage a proactive community response, the local authorities instituted a bounty of $5 for each mink turned in at the local sheriff’s office. The scheme was successful and after a month or so the evidence of mink had decreased dramatically. However, despite the obvious decrease, some local farmers continued to turn in significant number of mink against the $5 bounty. Eventually the authorities discovered why. Certain farmers were actually breeding the mink to claim the bounty. This is a perfect example of what sociologist Robert K Merton called “the law of unintended consequences” – you build a plan to prevent or stop something and end up causing a bigger problem.

The Miller Report

Many of us in the meetings industry fear that the Management Deficiency Report issued by the Office of the Inspector General in response to “excessive, wasteful and … impermissible” spending by the General Services Administration (GSA) on their Public Buildings Service 2010 Western Regions Conference will end up with very negative “unintended consequences”. The final cost of being seen to take action so as to “save tax payers’ money” may be significantly and exponentially higher than the relatively small amounts saved. The proof for this may be seen in the Appendix to the Report where Martha Johnson who recently resigned as Administrator at GSA, provides her response to Brian Miller, the Inspector General who authored the report. Amongst the steps Johnson commits to take are the cancellation of all future Western Regions Conferences, the reduction of travel budgets and a new level of scrutiny of all conferences, including those in the planning phase. Johnson has clearly decided that the only truly effective course of action is to punish the entire class for the undeniable misdemeanours of one single pupil. However, the effect of this action and, more importantly, its trickle down impact, has already been detrimental for the meetings industry and for the millions of jobs that it supports.

Response from the Meetings Industry

The publication of this report and the impending introduction of legislation aimed at preventing a recurrence of the circumstances that gave rise to it are bad news for the meetings and events industry. At the very time when our industry was beginning to articulate effectively its unique value to the business world along with its worth to the Exchequer in terms of jobs created and taxes generated, a story breaks that confirms every possible prejudice and misconception about “conferences” – that they are nothing more than an excuse for irresponsible carrying-on on someone else’s dime – in this case the taxpayers! It pains me to read that $130,000 for travel and expenses plus a minimum of 115 man-days were expended on flying folks in and out of Vegas just to plan the event. This fact alone makes the language used by Miller in his report (“excessive, wasteful”) appear restrained. As a professional meeting planner I’d say it displays either systemic abuse or gross incompetent or both.

Unintended Consequences

And this leads back to the Merton’s unintended consequences. Clearly the intended consequence of Miller’s report is to eliminate the excessive, wasteful use of tax payers’ money. This is a honourable objective with which everybody agrees. However, the actual consequences are way more wide ranging than this and include some which will, undoubtedly product the exact opposite effect. The cancellation of government conferences and the reduction of budgets to 80% of the 2010 rate will lead inexorably to job losses in the hospitality sector. There’s no doubt about this. More devastatingly, however, this action re-enforces and gives official validation to the hugely erroneous perception that conferences are a dispensable, unimportant tool used in organisations for questionable ends such as to facilitate the consumption of “400 pieces of $4.75 petit beef wellington” … and 1000 sushi rolls for $7.00 a piece”.

The important question

Moreover, Miller’s report and Johnson’s chastened response both neglect to ask or answer any questions around the suitability or otherwise of the individuals who planned the congress. What training in conference and meeting management did they have? What industry qualifications did they possess? Are they actually professional meeting and event planners or civil servants who assumed meeting planning duties as part of their jobs? It would seem unlikely that any of them held CMM, CMP, ADME or CITE designations as all of these qualifications include deep immersion in industry ethics, prudent contracting, efficient planning, effective negotiation, relevant regulations – elements all regrettably absent from the process as evidenced by the Miller report.

Third Parties

Miller specifically isolates the role of third parties, particularly Location Solvers, in the event and criticises GSA for using an intermediary that received a €12,000 finder’s fee. He mistakenly assumes that this sum would have been available as a discount to GSA had they negotiated with the property directly and regards the use of an outsourced party as “redundant and wasteful” as GSA “already employs several full-time event planners”. But this is precisely the point! Had GSA outsourced the entire event to a professional meeting planning organisation would there have been 8 site inspections involving over 115 man-days? Would there have been such gross over-spending on food when GSA’s own regulations clearly cap the per diem spend? Indeed, would the M Resort have been recommended as a suitable venue if, clearly, its price point would place it outside of the $71 daily limit available to government employees attending events in the greater Las Vegas area?

Hire the professionals

If a building designed and built by unqualified government employees with only amateur experience in architecture, brick-laying and carpentry were to collapse and then be the subject of an internal report it’s unlikely that that report would recommend the banning of buildings. Rather it would stress the need to appoint qualified professionals who can be relied upon for their expertise, experience and knowledge of the project in hand. If we are to avoid unintended consequences leading to hardship for thousands of tax paying workers in the hospitality sector then we need to do precisely the same thing in relation to meetings and events.

Padraic Gilligan is VP, Industry Relations at MCI, a globally integrated association, communication and event management company with 47 offices in 23 Countries. He can be contacted on [email protected] or on twitter at @Padraicino



3 thoughts on “Hard Lessons in Unintended Consequences – the GSA Western Regions Conference

  1. joaneisenstodt says:

    Bravo and gratitude! I’ll tweet and post this elsewhere.

    I wish it were the case that those who hold various designations (including SGMP’s CGMP) had been through classes and were held to rigourous standards that “…include deep immersion in industry ethics, prudent contracting, efficient planning, effective negotiation, relevant regulations ….” Alas, for the CMP, as an example, ethics is a very minor part of the equation. Industry associations, unless noodged like crazy, think that they’ve “done” ethics sessions (v. ensuring that ethics is part of the culture, ingrained so that all sessions realize they are teaching character along with the subject being taught) if they had them in the last few years.

    We have a long way to go – in the US and elsewhere – to improve the tactical, strategic, and ethical manner in which our industry does business.

    Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  2. kelleeoreilly says:

    Padraic: your building analogy is absolutely brilliant! The shortsightedness and reactionary nature of the US government response here is alarming, and as you wisely observe, causing real jobs to be lost – during a fragile-at-best economic recovery. My personal opinion is that commissioned third parties are definitely a part of the issue as well, and that government policy should prevent their use. Too many opportunities for motives to be questioned. An oversight board of objective third party professionals conducting random audits would go a long way.

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