Travel flap: cost vs. value

London Gnome

The Wausau Daily Herald has been publishing a series of stories on travel by public officials. I’m not sure what to make of it so I’m most interested in seeing the reader reactions, which are mixed. Sure, there are some people who think that every seminar or convention is some kind of junket and it ought to be eliminated. Others see it differently. They realize that if you don’t build relationships or you work from a more limited knowledge base, it could end up being a far more costly choice in the long run. Coming late to the game in introducing a best practice that would save far more than what you paid to find out about it in a timely fashion isn’t a great way to save money.

It’s no accident that you see the best organizations represented at national conferences. Having well-trained and educated people who are tuned in to current thinking and creating new approaches to challenging problems would seem to be its own reward. On the other hand, it’s certainly possible to abuse things.

In the context of the overall budget, travel is not a big expense in either the City of Wausau or Marathon County. Still, it is a lightening rod with some people and trying to minimize the significance can put a person into that tar baby quote land of “a lousy eight million” or something like that. That is all the more true in times like this, when many people have thrown the idea of a distant vacation overboard and revenue limitations threaten people’s jobs in every sector of the economy, including the public sector.  Whether it’s a significant expense in the big picture or not, it’s natural for people to want to scrutinize these kinds of expenses. Generally speaking, I’m not interested in eliminating jobs to carve out more headroom for travel.

I’ve cut back on travel significantly over the past few years – official, business and personal. On the public official side, a big part of it is simply sensitivity to the issue of perception. Times are different and a person would need a tin ear to miss it. At work, our company has more than a passing interest in cutting costs, since the recession definitely has an impact on revenue streams. I completed the professional certificate in economic development that I was working on for several years, which was the focus of much of the effort, too.

On the personal travel side, it has been a really interesting adventure, but it wouldn’t be possible for me to do over the next dozen years what I did over the last. It would be too expensive. There are people who have traveled more as a personal avocation, but not very many that I know. Here’s a map that shows the places that I’ve been and it even surprises me:

 

http://tinyurl.com/kovvgp

A couple of my favorite quotes about travel:

– “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain

– “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine

What’s interesting is that both of these people lived in times when travel was far less convenient than it is today, but their observations are as true now as they ever were. I was fortunate to have been able to seize the opportunity that was presented by a golden age of relatively low-cost travel and I’m glad that I did.

I’m not sure if a policy will be developed in response to the discussion in the newspaper or not. What I do know is that the great amount of resources that I’ve spent personally on travel has been an incredible adventure in lifelong learning that often has an impact on the way that I see things. The relatively little that has been added through official or business travel over the past few years has been a welcome and well-used addition to that wealth of experience. It is difficult to separate out a few threads from a tapestry and say what they might be worth to somebody else, who can count the money but not measure the insight gained or how it might fit into a particular situation to add value to a choice about direction. It would be difficult for me to do that myself, except to say that the value exceeded the cost.

JR

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One Response to “Travel flap: cost vs. value”

  1. Paul Henning Says:

    Jim,

    Travel is always fun and educational. I’ve done my share and I’m thankful for the chance. I noticed and envy all the places you’ve been. I remember sitting down w/ you downtown shortly after your trip to Rio. We spoke about the land on Hwy-U. Nice time reference, huh?

    You’re right, not a huge overall dollar amount. BUT, the rub will likely be the comparison with Point, Eau Claire, Oshkosh, etc. combined and no policy in place. Gehin’s office seems pretty flagrant. Shocking. Then add Otto and Rebman…come on. Not much bang for the buck there, especially with Joe and Brad being there. Bus drivers don’t get to travel much, so I see that logic. The mayor…speaking of not much bang, but the office merits some travel, even if it’s just for a beer.

    I’m glad you’re clean. You’ve had your share of travel…on your own buck. We’ll see what happens. Maybe if the WDH didn’t have to beg for the data, they wouldn’t be so rough on the city. They usually aren’t. You didn’t get to them quick enough.

    Regards, P.H.

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