Frequently Asked Questions: Conferences

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General Conference Questions:

  1. What is a conference?

    Conferences generally involve participation by multiple Federal agencies, or bureaus within one agency, and may include private sector attendees. They typically involve topical matters of interest and often include registration, a published substantive agenda, and scheduled speakers or discussion panels. Training sessions, retreats, award ceremonies, and office meetings do not qualify as conferences.

  2. Can my agency host a conference on its own even if it doesn’t have specific conference authority?

    Yes.  An agency generally does not need express statutory authority to host a conference, as long as the agency determines that a formal conference is reasonably and logically related to carrying out its statutory responsibilities. 

  3. Can we hire a conference planner to put on an agency conference?

    If you have made the determination that the conference will further your agency’s mission, then you can enter into a contract with a conference planner.

Funding a Conference

  1. Can we use appropriated funds to pay for a conference?

    Yes, as long as the agency determines that a formal conference is reasonably and logically related to carrying out its statutory responsibilities. 

  2. Can we enter into a no-cost contract to put on an entire conference?

    No.  A no-cost contract is one where the contractor makes its money off fees the contractor collects and the government is not responsible for any costs.  A no-cost contract for an entire conference represents an improper augmentation of the Department’s appropriation.  Note, however, that fixed-price or cost-reimbursement contracts for conferences can contain certain no-cost elements.  See convenience fees.  A convenience fee is one that the attendee voluntarily pays to the contractor in order to obtain services such as meals, lodging and refreshments, that the Department the Department does not consider an integral part of the conference.  As such, the fees are not received “for the Government” but rather collected by the contractor for its own use.

Partnering:

  1. If there is another agency or organization that shares our interest in the subject matter of the conference, is there a way to partner with  that  other agency in order to leverage resources?

    Yes.  If the conference involves one or more partners, a formal agreement must be executed.  The Department’s Joint Project Authority, 15 U.S.C. § 1525, may be used to enter into agreements with other government entities and non-profits on matters of mutual interest to the parties, the costs of which are equitably apportioned.  The parties would have to enter into an agreement delineating each party’s responsibilities with respect to the conference.  Click here for more information on Joint Project Agreements.

    Individual bureaus may have other authorities which they may use to partner with outside entities.  For example, The International Trade Administration and the Bureau of Industry and Security have the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1971 (MECEA), which they may use to partner with various outside entities.  Contact the General Law Division for more information.

Fees:

  1. Can we charge and retain attendance fees?

    As a general rule, no.  The Federal government must have specific statutory authority to retain fees from outside sources.  There is no Department-wide authority to retain fees; however, individual bureaus may have authorities, specific to them, which authorize them to collect and retain fees.  For example, the International Trade Administration and the Bureau of Industry and Security have the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1971 (MECEA).  Contact the General Law Division for more information.

    To the extent that we do charge an attendance fee without statutory authority, the fee would be considered a user fee under 31 U.S.C. § 9701 and would have to be deposited into the General Fund of the Treasury pursuant to the Miscellaneous Receipts Act.  31 U.S.C. § 3302(b). 

    Note that a contractor may charge a convenience fee as part of a no-cost element of a contract for conference services.  The convenience fee is not technically an attendance fee, but rather an expense the attendee is voluntarily paying in order to obtain services that the Department does not consider an integral part of the conference.  As such, the fees are not received “for the Government” but rather collected by the contractor for its own use. 

  2. Can we charge and retain exhibitor fees?

    No.  Exhibitor fees are the same as attendance fees, see # 1, above.

Sponsorships:

  1. Can we receive funds from sponsors to cover the costs of the conference?

    Yes, the Department may solicit sponsors and collect sponsorship funds under  specific circumstances. Please call the Ethics Division at (202) 482-5384 for guidance on how to go about soliciting sponsors and collecting sponsorship funds in a way that does not constitute or appear to be improper endorsement or favoritism of the selected sponsor.

Food and Refreshments:

  1. Can we use appropriated funds to provide food to conference attendees?

    No.  In accordance with this office’s April 2, 2008 opinion, and consistent with the Office of Legal Counsel’s (OLC) opinion in Use of Appropriated Funds to Provide Light Refreshments to Non-Federal Participants at EPA Conferences (April 5, 2007), appropriated funds may not be used to purchase food for non-federal conference attendees.

    With respect to federal attendees, food is considered a personal expense, which an employee is expected to bear the cost of from his or her own salary.

  2. If we have a contract with a conference planner, can the conference planner arrange for the provision of food at our conference and charge, collect, and retain a fee for the provision of the food? 

    Yes.  A contractor may retain fees it receives from conference attendees for goods and services it provides to the attendees, such as meals, lodging, and refreshments, provided it is not directed to do so by the Department.  The fee is called a “personal convenience fee,” and is an expense the attendee is voluntarily paying in order to obtain services that the Department does not consider an integral part of the conference.  The fee is collected by the contractor, on his or her own behalf, not on behalf of the government.  If you have an existing contract with a conference planner, this component of the contract must be “no-cost.”  A no-cost contract is one where the contractor makes its money off fees the contractor collects and the government is not responsible for any costs.  You should work with your contracting officer to execute this.

  3. Can we hire a conference planner/contractor specifically for the purpose of providing convenience items to attendees?

    Yes, through a “no-cost” contract (see #2, above, for definition).  You should work with your contracting officer to execute this.

  4. Can we provide food to conference attendees who are on travel?

    Yes, pursuant to 41 C.F.R. 301-11.18 food may be provided to those on official travel; however, the traveler’s per diem must be adjusted to account for the meal(s) furnished.  See also Travel.

  5. Can we provide light refreshments to conference attendees, at no cost to the attendees?

    Yes, pursuant to 41 C.F.R. 310-74.11 light refreshments may be provided to attendees; however, this applies only to those on travel.  GSA Travel Advisory #7 (January 30, 2007) stated that the Federal Travel Regulations cannot be used as authority to provide light refreshments to individuals in a non-travel status.  See also Travel.

Travel:

  1. Can we pay the travel expenses of those attending the conference?

    As a general rule, no, the government is prohibited from paying the travel expenses of those attending meetings.  31 U.S.C. § 1345.  However, if an individual is providing a direct service to the Government, for example, speaking at the event, he may be put on invitational travel orders, pursuant to 5 U.S.C.§ 5703.

  2. Can we rent a vehicle to transport conference attendees between sites?

    Appropriated funds may not be used to cover transportation expenses of meeting attendees, including local transportation.  31 U.S.C. § 1345.  However, if the contractor determines that the provision of transportation for conference attendees would be a personal convenience, the contractor may provide transportation and include the cost in the attendees’ personal convenience fee

  3. Can we pay for the travel expenses of the speakers we invite to participate in the conference?

    Yes, speakers provide a direct service to the government so they may be put on invitational travel orders pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 5703.  See also Honoraria.

Honoraria

  1. Can we pay honoraria to our invited speakers?

    Yes.  Using appropriated funds to pay honoraria is authorized as a necessary expense for invited guest speakers. 

  2. How much can we provide to our invited speakers as an honorarium?

    There is no set amount that is authorized, but the general rule is that the amount must be reasonable.

  3. Can we pay an honorarium to every attendee of the conference?

    No.  Honoraria are only authorized to the extent they are necessary expenses for invited guest speakers.  A conference where everybody participates by definition has no featured speakers.  To the extent that a few attendees are asked to speak for a substantial period of time or to serve together on a panel on a particular topic, those few attendees could be offered an honorarium if it is determined that the honorarium is necessary for the accomplishment of the conference.

Seal, Logo or Emblem Use:

  1. If the conference is going to be a joint event, can we authorize the other party to use the Department of Commerce seal and/or a bureau logo or emblem on materials it prints to hand out at the conference?

    Yes, but click here for procedures.

  2. Can we use an outside entity’s logo on materials that we print to hand out at the conference?

    It depends on the nature of the outside entity.  Generally, we are not authorized to place the logo of a company on government printed materials; however there is a waiver process.  Click here for more information.  The prohibition does not apply to the logos of other government (federal, state, local, or foreign) agencies.

Trinkets/Giveaways:

  1. Can we use appropriated funds to purchase items to give away at the conference, i.e. mugs, t-shirts, magnets, etc.?

    Expending appropriated funds to purchase items that are in the nature of personal gifts, such as trinkets (items given away merely to generate goodwill or create a favorable impression of the agency), is generally improper because such an expenditure would not constitute a valid “necessary expense” of the agency.  This is because the distribution of items in the nature of personal gifts generally bears no direct link to a purpose for which the agency receives appropriations.  Some informational items may, however, be authorized as necessary expenses.  Click here for more information.

Freedom of Information Act:

  1. Is information generated by a conference subject to the Freedom of Information Act?

    Yes.  Documents in the possession of your agency are subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  That includes, but is not limited to, transcripts of presentations, handouts, and registration lists.  Generally, this information will be releasable under FOIA.  One exception might be home addresses or telephone numbers or other personal information submitted on registration material.  If you think that other information might be protected from disclosure, please consult with the General Law Division Officer of the Day at (202) 482-5391.

  2. Is it permissible to proactively release conference materials, for example on the agency website?

    If the information is releasable under FOIA, it can and should be proactively disclosed.

Federal Advisory Committee Act:

  1. Are there any restrictions if the purpose of my conference is for attendees to reach a consensus opinion on a particular issue or issues?

    Yes.  If the purpose of your conference is to obtain consensus advice from the public on a particular issue or issues, FACA may be implicated.  Click here for additional information.

Paperwork Reduction Act:

  1. Can we hand out a survey at our conference?

    If you are asking the same set of questions to ten or more members of the public, then the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA), 44 U.S.C. § 3501 et seq., requires that an agency receive approval from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) prior to conducting or sponsoring the collection of information. 

  2. Does that mean that we can’t hand out a questionnaire at the end of our conference soliciting feedback on the conference?

    No, as long as the questions are presented in a “suggestion box” type format as opposed specific question.  For example, if you are just asking for attendees’ comments, suggestions, or general feedback, such questionnaires would not require OMB approval.  Also, if all of the conference attendees are Federal employees, the PRA does not apply.  See #5, below.

  3. Can we just have our non-federal partner or contractor collect the information in order to avoid the PRA?

    No.  If the information is being collected on behalf of the agency, it is still necessary to get OMB approval.

  4. Does the format of the survey matter?

    No.  The PRA applies to paper surveys, as well as verbal communications over the telephone or in person, Federal Register or other regulatory requirements, and surveys over the Internet or e-mail.

  5. Does the PRA apply if all the people being questioned are federal employees?

    No.  Federal employees are excluded from the definition of “persons” for purposes of the PRA.

For more information about the PRA, click here