3 Questions They Should Have Asked at the GSA April 17 2012

Why is this man smiling?  Jeff Neely, the Western Region director of the General Services Administration, is probably asking himself this question.  In case you haven’t heard, Neely invoked the Fifth Amendment when he was called before Congress this week to explain why he approved $823,000 in expenses for a GSA management retreat at a Las Vegas casino and resort.

This cheesy photo was taken by Neely’s wife on one of his five government-paid recon trips to Vegas to scope things out before the retreat.  She then posted the picture on her Google Plus account.  Seriously.  (Hat tip to my friends at Government Executive who shared the snap after it was unearthed by ABC News.)

The GSA scandal story has taken off, I think, because most of us cannot believe that any federal manager would approve a budget that included $8,000 for a mind reader, $75,000 for a bicycle building team building exercise and $44 a person breakfasts.  Oh, yeah, let’s not forget the $6,000 for commemorative coins and the $8,000 for participant “yearbooks.”  (There are recaps of all this everywhere, including the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and The Washington Post.)

Maybe I just fell off the turnip truck, but I can’t believe it myself because I know of federal agencies that aren’t even providing free bottles of water or coffee during training events. Honestly, I can’t think of any of my private sector clients that spend the kind of money that Jeff Neely authorized.   In a post-meltdown world, it’s just not good form.

So, I won’t venture to psychoanalyze Neely’s motivations in engineering this mess, but I can think of three questions that any leader – public sector or private – should ask themselves before authorizing a mega-bucks budget.

  • Would I spend my own money this way? This seems like a pretty good place to start.  Would you go on five planning trips (and authorize three more) if you had to pay out of your own pocket? Would you stay in a $500 to $1,200 a night hotel suite for multiple nights if it was coming out of your wallet?  If the answer is no, that’s a warning sign.
  • Am I trying to hide it? Neely must have had some warning signs of his own in planning the meeting.  It’s reported that he asked a GSA lawyer to give an opinion on the $75K bike building session but to not write it down because it might “become discoverable.”  If that little voice inside your head says, “Let’s make sure we hide this,” that’s a pretty good indication that you shouldn’t do it.
  • What’s my point of reference? It’s been widely reported that Neely directed his staff to make the Vegas meeting “over the top.”  In the process, the budget ballooned from $300,000 to over $800,000.  Seriously, dude — over the top compared to what?  Compared to what other federal agencies do for their management conferences?  Compared to what Goldman Sachs does for theirs?  Compared to what most people on Planet Earth would find acceptable?  Making sound decisions about spending other people’s money requires a point of reference that is grounded in reality.

What other questions should Jeff Neely have asked himself?  What’s your take on this story?

9 Responses to “3 Questions They Should Have Asked at the GSA”

  1. Bryan Koen says:

    Does it pass the smell test? This bureaucrat should have had this question presented to him in any Business Ethics class. The sad thing is Neely probably won't lose his job over this. He will quietly be shuffled to another agency. It's this behavior that has created a credibility gap between the government and the people.

    A wise person once gave me the best advice for situations like these, "Don't be that guy!"

  2. Carol Timmreck says:

    Is this in alignment with our mission?

    Is this in alignment with what our administration espouses? [It's been reported that the commemoratives handed out were "made in China".]

  3. A good question to ask one's self could be "If I do this will I still pass the mirror test?" The mirror test is that old stand-by, when you look at yourself in the mirror do you like what you see? I think any time your standard is to be "over the top" that you are either skirting close to dangerous territory (it's all about how good I can look) or you've fallen over the line.

  4. Don Dewey says:

    You are obviously taking all this way more seriously than was Mr. Neely (at least until very recently).
    Perhaps his first question should have been, how long do I hope to keep this job and stay out of jail? (since ethical concerns were clearly not part of the equation)
    Also, where was everyone else as this all happened?

  5. Jenny says:

    These are great questions. It’s important to remember also that while this one man led this effort, there were many many others that helped implement it. So, my next questions would be, “Do I trust my team to know what is right and do the right things? Do I trust that my team will tell me when I’m wrong?” No man acts alone in federal spending like this – he makes for a good symbol, but there were many by his side.

  6. Steve Silbar says:

    How about "What would be my reaction to someone else doing the same thing?" Or would I like my actions to become public knowledge? Integrity, ethical actions, and simple common sense are all values that are obviously not core traits for this GSA Director.

  7. SandySalt says:

    How would I like to see this on CNN and FOX? I've personally have had things in my area of concern show up on CNN and FOX twice and neither time was it fun or enjoyable. Luckly in both cases my group had done everything right, while some of the others involved had circumvented the rules and paid a very heavy price in careers and public goodwill.

  8. Philip Hall says:

    Seems like a relevant question is how would this look on the front page of the newspaper.

  9. Pat Ahaesy says:

    Love the thought of consider seeing it on CNN and Fox as SandySalt suggested. Ooops!! That happened.
    Seriously, though, the GSA must have had a budget to which they adhere. How did they have the audacity to even think of going over that. If a potential client tells me that they want something over the top I put my brakes on and figure that this probably is not a legitimate person or company.
    I can understand wanting a quality meeting that meets the objectives outlined. as well as ROI.
    Obviously their objectives were a bit off base.
    What happened to ethics?? How about responsibility?
    As a meetings professional I am highly insulted by such behavior. Neely and his GSA planners are nothing like independent professional meetings management companies.

    Pat Ahaesy,CMP, CSEP
    P&V Enterprises
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