Deep budget cuts have led to significant travel restrictions in the departments of Defense and the Navy, including travel associated with many professional development and continuing education conferences conducted in years past.
The Deputy Secretary of Defense authorized DoD components in January 2013 to further curtail spending on travel, training and conferences, in light of the overall budget uncertainty faced by the department. The fiscal guidance issued by senior DoD and DON leadership caused several commands to either cancel their planned conferences or seek innovative alternatives.
For example, the Naval Safety and Environmental Training Center (NAVSAFENVTRACEN) conducted its annual conference online recently rather than cancel it. The conference, besides facilitating an information exchange, also provides required certifications for command safety personnel. DoD and service instructions require safety professionals to obtain annual continuing education units (CEU) to maintain currency within their field of discipline.
Additionally, certified safety specialists (CSP) and certified industrial hygienists (CIH) are required to obtain CEUs to maintain certification. The center’s professional development conference provides no-fee courses and workshops that provide continuing education requirements for individual qualifications and certifications.
Alternative training classes and comparable conferences that offer similar training opportunities require registration fees and incur travel and per diem costs. But cancellation of the safety conference could have meant that some CSPs and CIHs might not have been able to maintain their certifications or that they would have to do so by more expensive means.
So, in January, Cmdr. Greg Cook, NAVSAFENVTRACEN commanding officer, found a solution: if the Navy couldn’t go to the conference, the conference would go to the Navy.
“With the fiscal guidance we received in January, I was faced with either outright canceling the entire conference (which would impact various certifications) or accomplishing the conference objectives via other means,” Cook wrote in an email. “I opted on the latter approach and pursued live streaming, using a DCO-like learning environment.”
Cook’s solution came in the form of cloud computing and DCO Cloud, which enables online collaboration. It differs from the DoD enterprise service known as Defense Connect Online, available at https://www.dco.dod.mil, in its ability to accommodate large conferences such as the NAVSAFENVTRACEN Professional Development Conference.
The DCO.mil version provides all DoD partners with the capabilities to set up audio-video Web conferencing, use instant messaging and text chat, allowing users to communicate and share information in a secure forum. Users with Common Access Cards can create accounts, but one is not needed to access DCO sessions; a user may log on to sessions as a "guest." But unlike the DCO.mil version, DCO Cloud is a commercial product that must be purchased.
To use expanded capabilities, NAVSAFENVTRACEN purchased the DCO Cloud service and saved more than $100,000 on expenses, such as facility rentals, materials shipping and printing, items that typically total more than half of the cost of hosting a “brick and mortar” conference, Cook said. Besides saving the costs of hosting a live event, NAVSAFENVTRACEN eliminated travel costs for attendees, which would have totaled more than $1million in transportation and per diem expenses.
“Our conference had over 50 concurrent running seminars/events and leveraged 80 geographically dispersed speakers across 5 days,” Cook wrote in an email. “The subjects, length and general look/feel, complete with general session (VIPs, keynotes, etc.), were modeled after our brick and mortar conference, and provided an air of familiarity for staff, speakers and attendees. We had 1500+ global-based registrants.”
The DCO.mil version hosted several virtual sessions for two DON Chief Information Officer DON IT conferences, originally scheduled as live events in late January in San Diego and May in Virginia Beach. The virtual conference tool allowed the DON CIO to provide information and communicate departmentwide without the associated conference hosting, travel and lodging costs, a savings of about $150,000 for the two conferences. Additionally, the DON CIO incurred no costs to conduct the sessions via DCO.
Six sessions were provided online, with topics such as software licensing training, end user licensing agreements, DON information collection management and audit readiness, among others. Post-conference feedback showed a satisfaction rate of 96 percent among survey takers; an identical percentage of respondents indicated an ability to access all sessions without encountering any problems. The six sessions were only a portion of the conference sessions usually held, but the DON CIO is planning to expand its virtual conferencing presence should travel restrictions remain in place.
With smaller budgets anticipated in the years ahead and technology making virtual gatherings more effective and cost-efficient, the virtual conferences conducted by the DON CIO and NAVSAFENVTRACEN may be a sign of things to come. The success of these virtual conference sessions provides commands and agencies a viable alternative to costly live conferences.
For more information on DCO.mil, the version DON users may access at no cost, including FAQs and tutorials, and to create an account with your CAC, visit Defense Connect Online at https://www.dco.dod.mil.