Defense Travel System stalls on the runway

Members of Congress threatened to cut funding for the Defense Travel System last week, citing growing frustration with the system’s lack of usability and delays in development that have pushed the program’s costs to almost $500 million in the past eight years.

The Defense Department intended DTS to be an all-in-one, Web-based travel management solution. However, a recent congressional investigation revealed that many DOD travelers are not using DTS. Senators told DOD officials that they might cut funding if the department doesn’t fix DTS. Pentagon officials defended parts of the program and promised to make improvements.

At a Nov. 16 hearing of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Sen. Norm Coleman, (R-Minn.), said he would introduce legislation soon to remove funding for the travel booking part of the system because it fails to find the cheapest rates and is difficult to use.

“The travel component of DTS is a failure and a waste of taxpayers’ money,” Coleman said.

Coleman is chairman of the subcommittee, which conducted an investigation showing that the 42 installations surveyed used DTS for only 17 percent of their travel transactions. At the Pentagon, only 19.8 percent of travelers used DTS this year to book flights from January to September, the subcommittee found.

The back-end portions of DTS, which handle accounting, vouchers and connections to other DOD information systems, work relatively well and should be preserved if possible, Coleman said.

David Chu, undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, told the subcommittee that DOD was not satisfied with the system’s travel functions. DTS is a means to an end, he said, and the goal is to find the best overall solution. The department is exploring all options for fixing DTS, Chu said.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) told Chu he would block further funding for DTS if DOD doesn’t resolve the problems. “There won’t be any money going to the Pentagon as long as I’m a U.S. senator until this is fixed,” he said.

Coburn blames contract

Coburn said the DTS contract is responsible for the program’s lack of performance. “We have a never-ending contract,” he said. The DTS contract is a symptom of what’s wrong with government contracting, he added.

DOD commissioned DTS in 1998 to be a fee-based system that would use commercial technology. The original contract anticipated full deployment by 2002.
But the contract was switched to cost-plus-profit basis in 2001, shortly after Northrop Grumman acquired the company that was managing DTS. At the time, Carlson Wagonlit Travel filed a now-defunct lawsuit alleging that the Northrop Grumman contract was awarded in violation of fair competition laws.

The government has paid $474 million for DTS, according to the Government Accountability Office, with $264 million going to Northrop Grumman.
Coburn introduced an amendment to the 2007 Defense Authorization bill that would have switched DTS back to a fee-per-transaction program, but the joint House/Senate conference committee removed the amendment from the bill.

In its place, the conferees mandated an independent study to find out whether it would be possible to separate the travel and accounting functions of DTS. A federally funded research and development center will conduct the study, officials said.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said at the hearing that he would depend on the forthcoming study to inform him about DTS’ viability. Levin will become chairman of the subcommittee when the congressional leadership changes hands next year.

DTS savings overstated

In September, GAO released a report stating that DOD overestimated its cost savings for DTS and that the department’s tracking of DTS use is based on outdated information. DOD has also failed to correct implementation problems with the system, GAO said.

The DTS program office failed to keep records that would allow objective evaluations of DTS’ success, said Thomas Gimble, acting DOD inspector general. The department could not produce the cost or savings documentation needed to evaluate the system, he said.

“It is not possible for us to determine whether DTS is the most cost-effective way to meet the department’s travel management needs or even to fully quantify cost savings,” Gimble said.

Unless DTS is used and works as intended, the savings will never appear, said Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. “The question is whether it can be saved, and I think that’s still up in the air,” he said.
Coleman crunches the numbersThe Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, led by Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), investigated the use of the Defense Travel System by surveying 42 Defense Department locations where the system was in operation. The subcommittee tracked more than 755,000 travel transactions made between January and September.

It found that those locations made only 17 percent of their travel bookings using DTS. Employees used travel agents to book the rest of their trips. At the Pentagon, the system accounted for only 19.8 percent of travel arrangements.

“I am appalled that the Defense Department has spent half a billion dollars to develop a system that doesn’t work as required, that doesn’t save money as we were led to believe, and that isn’t being used by DOD personnel,” Coleman said at a hearing Nov 16.

He promised to introduce legislation to kill the travel booking portion of the system, which he said fails to find the best fares and is clumsy to use.
— Josh Rogin

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