Employees of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) are getting the first changes in 10 years in how they go about getting permission to speak to outside groups — ranging from their kid’s local scout troops to national conventions. And it might just make it harder to get a green light for such outside appearances. The new FSIS directive became effective Thursday, replacing the version that took effect May 17, 2005. It applies to all federal inspectors of meat, poultry, eggs and other agency employees over how they must handle any speaking request from any outside or event, no matter how innocent. The new directive says the reason for the newly revised policy is because of changes in how FSIS tracks requests, including how employees must submit information to a computer system that is not available to the public, and how requests will be approved or denied. It also provides updated examples of meetings, special events, and outside entities, along with more government abbreviations. FSIS employees are told on one hand that the agency is “committed to participating in meetings, conventions, and other events by outside entities when necessary to support FSIS’s mission,” while at same time warning them of “scheduling and resource conflicts” for the agency that might make getting approvals problematic. A “Meeting Attendance System,” a web-based system closed to the public, is going be used by the FSIS Office of the Administrator (OA) “to eliminate duplication of speakers or participants, to ensure consistency in messages delivered at the event, and to use Agency resources more effectively.” The new policy does not apply to communicating with elected officials and the media nor do they apply to FSIS meetings for recruitment, training and development. Both of these fall under their own policy directives. To get permission to attend a public meeting or other outside event, FSIS employees need to make a case that participation helps the agency’s initiatives or program needs. It also helps if the employee can show that the travel budget covers the event and that other personnel are available to cover while the event-goer is away. Separately, the new directive also has ethical guidelines that must be addressed before attending any event. FSIS leaves it to program administrative assistants to provide the authorizations after they are also approved by their immediate supervisors. But, even then, the OA in Washington, D.C., can step in with a denial if “the request is not consistent with the Agency mission or is not an effective use of Agency resources.” The new directive ends with screen-by-screen instructions of how to use the meetings system. The most recent FSIS policy directive for agency employees communicating with elected officials, their staffs, and the media is five years old. It says that the FSIS communications policy is based on maintaining “confidence and trust in our Agency’s food safety mission … .” That directive is based on a centralized policy of running most inquiries through the agency’s Congressional and Public Affairs Office whether the inquiry comes from Capitol Hill or the media. The FSIS directives make it clear that any USDA employee is free to speak out as a private citizen on their own time as long as they make it clear they are not speaking in an official capacity. However, in a question-and-answer section, employees are advised not to provide information to congressional offices with questions, but rather direct them to call Congressional and Public Affairs. As for the media, the directive gives the same advice if the FSIS staff member is asked to do a television interview, radio talk show, or answer a question in a public meeting.