How would you feel if your local congressional or senate representative stuck taxpayers with a $5,000 bill for a helicopter ride to a function just 50 miles away?
Or if they claimed reimbursement for a $60,000 bill for three days of accommodation and meals on a trip they didn’t actually make? Such are the actions of Australian politicians.
The first case ended with a public outcry loud enough to ruin the career of a high-profile federal politician. The second was a claim made by a Prime Minister for a trip to the U.S. which was paid out even though he was removed as leader before the event ever took place–it was part of a spending spree of $55 million of public money spent on political travel in six months.
These and other examples of political largess–including a politician who had his dogs chauffeured on their own in a publicly-funded car–have prompted the Australian government to cool the heels of their jet-setting representatives by investing in video conferencing. It may be something the U.S. needs to adopt.
Saving Money by Telecommuting
There is no explicit curbing of travel expenditure mentioned in the Australian government’s announcement of a new rollout of VC services for its politicians (though the mainstream media has done a pretty good job of reading between the lines).
Instead, the investment is being sold as a way of linking politicians with their hometown constituents when they have to travel to the nation’s capital to vote, lobby, and generally put together the deals that make a country tick.
Whatever the intention, the proposal stands to save the country at least a little money, in much the same way as video conferencing has reduced spending in the corporate world. It has been estimated companies that regularly use video conferencing in place of in-room meetings save as much as 30% on their travel expenses.
But there’s no need to go commercial in providing evidence of potential travel savings from using video conferencing. Texas charter schools cut their travel budget by 40% by replacing bussed inter-school visits with virtual trips.
The Michigan Department of Corrections saved $5 million by having prisoners appear by video link, rather than in person. And, the U.S. Navy saved $24 million in travel expenses by transferring part of its service training to video teletraining.
Which is nice, because U.S. politicians can be just as spendthrift as their cousins down under.
$10,000 a Trip, 557 Trips a Year
In 2016, Congress spent more than $14.5 million on taxpayer-funded trips abroad, a figure 27% above than the previous year, and the highest on record. And our politicians don’t just travel often, they travel in style.
In that same year members of congress and their staff made 557 trips which each cost upwards of $10,000. By comparison, fewer than two in every thousand trips bought by the general public in 2016 cost $10,000.
It’s not just foreign trips that absorb public taxes, either. The State of Mississippi spent more than $60 million on domestic travel, two-thirds of it in-state, for the year 2015. That’s 20% higher than the mark set in 2012, and comes after the state placed a moratorium on new car purchases that saved $9 million a year.
No one is going to argue that the President should abandon Air Force One and the diplomacy of international state visits in favor of a quick Skype with the Queen of England. However, there are clear ways in which video conferencing can keep costs down while still keeping politicians in touch.
Video Calling Politicians
The first thing that should be done is to make a politician’s hometown and Washington offices the central hub of a video calling network, much in line with the Australian proposal.
While there’s no way to make more hours in a day, a representative can certainly make more time available for private constituent meetings by conducting business online. A direct link between home and the capital from within a political office means voters can use an encrypted computer for their calls, waiting one after the other like they would in person.
Secondly, they could take a leaf out of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s book and use video conferencing for state functions, including attending political rallies, opening new infrastructure, and appearing live with Coldplay. Modi’s motives may be self-promoting, but each such appearance by the PM costs a fraction of an in-person visit.
And finally, they could meet with benefactors and business partners the way the majority of U.S. businesses operate, via video conference. The industry is expected to generate business to the tune of $6.2 billion within four years, and there’s no longer any shame in meeting online–even the President is doing it.