Is the Defense Travel System finally ready to fly?

Expanding the system to accommodate trips for purposes other than temporary-duty travel is a Defense Department priority

Dueling systems

The Defense Travel System is not the federal government’s only major travel system. Since 2002, the General Services Administration has been developing its eTravel Service. Since December 2003, eTravel use has been mandatory for civilian agencies.

On the surface, at least, eTravel and DTS appear to be similar. But some differences between the two systems stand out, starting with their names. Defense Department officials typically refer to DTS as a system. GSA identifies eTravel as a service. DTS is an ambitious project to rewrite DOD’s travel procedures, an overhaul that relies heavily on back-office
integration and standardization. In contrast, eTravel leaves back-office processing to civilian agencies. Agencies design interfaces between eTravel and their own systems that manage human resources and data storage.

Although DTS is a system only for DOD, it handles a potentially larger volume of traffic than eTravel, which 80 civilian agencies use. Defense accounts for 60 percent of all federal travel. Official DOD travel often takes employees to places most civilian agency employees don’t ordinarily go.

A joint DOD/GSA study conducted in 2003 concluded the two systems should be kept separate.

— David Perera

21st-century travel system

In the early 20th century, manufacturers discovered they could break complex processes into easy, repeatable tasks, and they created a revolution. A similar upheaval is under way today in software development.

Creating software still resembles preassembly line methods of production. Craftsmen focus on completing software applications, making necessary changes to programs so they all fit together.

Software created in that manner is unique. Each software application has its own peculiarities.

Service-oriented architecture, at its most advanced level, creates applications from a grouping of standardized parts. It makes the process of developing software more like assembly-line work and less like craftsmen’s work.

SOA requires separating tightly integrated processes and breaking them into standardized pieces. Each piece is a service, hence the name service-oriented architecture.

One service can hand off data to another because SOA has standardized interfaces.

DOD implemented the Defense Travel System in 1998 as a tightly integrated system, the exact opposite of SOA. The Institute for Defense Analyses has recommended that DOD implement SOA to bring its travel system into the 21st century.

— David Perera

When Defense Department employees travel for temporary duty, they must follow official procedures for making airline reservations, reserving rental cars and paying for hotels. Streamlining those complicated, bureaucratic and expensive procedures has been a DOD priority since 1995.

The decision to reform the department’s fractured travel system was a no-brainer for anyone searching for government waste, fraud and abuse. DOD accounts for 60 percent of the total federal travel market. In the past, booking a trip required almost 50 human interventions. Processing travel arrangements cost DOD as much as $1 billion a year.

Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota was among the first military stations to install a new DOD system designed to streamline military travel procedures. Seven years ago, DOD installed the software, called the Defense Travel System, at Ellsworth and other locations. DTS is more than a travel reservation system. It is an ambitious effort to create a single system for everything related to defense travel: ticket reservations, authorizations, voucher processing and financial accounting. The system is designed to integrate DOD’s travel procedures from start to finish and plug seamlessly into the department’s myriad financial systems.

“The more people use it, the more they get familiar with it, the more they like it,” said Air Force Sgt. Diana Phillips, who has worked with DTS for four years in various capacities, including doing a stint on Ellsworth’s DTS help desk.

But the system has also provoked hostile criticism. Users have complained about its clunky design. Until recently, DTS would not allow users to reserve an airplane seat until the request went through the entire travel authorization process, which sometimes took days. By then, the seat would usually be gone. Two different travelers from the same base headed to the same place might get different price quotes. The Government Accountability Office reported that travelers could not be sure DTS displayed all relevant flights and airfares. Congressional pressure to fix DTS grew.

Angry that system development took far longer than anticipated and that the cost seemed higher than reasonable, Sens. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) advised DOD in 2006 to start using discount-travel sites, such as Expedia or Orbitz, instead of DTS.

GAO reported that DTS was four years behind its projected development schedule. But that schedule, which envisioned an initial deployment within 120 days of hiring a software developer and full deployment by 2002, may have been unrealistic from the start.

As for program costs, the DTS program management office said critics have confused the program’s development cost of $263.7 million with its total cost of $474 million, which covers development costs in addition to expenses for deployment, training and system administration.

Although Coleman and Coburn failed to cut off the system’s funding, they did succeed in requiring DOD to pay for an independent study to assess the viability of the troubled project. The report’s recommendations, they expected, would determine the program’s fate.

The Oracle from Alexandria

The Institute for Defense Analyses is a federally funded research and development center in Alexandria, Va. Its cost analysis of DTS garnered plenty of attention when it released its report in March. The institute’s conclusion was surprising.

“We find no basis for abandoning the [current version] of DTS in favor of an alternative approach,” such as employing a commercial online booking service or empowering military commercial-travel offices to make all the reservations, the report states. In case there was any confusion about their conclusions, the report’s authors highlighted their recommendations in italics and bold face.

The institute recommended that DOD press forward with DTS because users are increasingly satisfied thanks to a software update, Reservation Refresh, that program managers deployed in mid-February. New versions of DTS software are nothing new. As of February, the program office had released a series of them, all named after early U.S. presidents: Jefferson in 2003, Madison in 2005 and Monroe in 2006. But only the Reservation Refresh in mid-February guaranteed that travelers consistently could see the lowest-cost itinerary, could search a more complete commercial flight inventory and could sort options by category, such as cost.

Reservation Refresh has another feature that has improved travelers’ satisfaction. “Now when they choose their tickets, [DTS] actually reserves them,” Phillips said. Previously, people were often confused after clicking through all the DTS screens about whether they had a reservation. Now, because the refresh introduced book-as-you-go functionality, “it’s crystal-clear that there’s a reservation out there,” Phillips said.

However, while confusion about whether the system was making reservations decreased, other questions caused the number of calls to the Ellsworth help desk to spike in February as program managers installed Reservation Refresh. But now, six months later, calls for help are back to normal levels, Phillips said.

Most calls come from people unfamiliar with the system or frustrated with the still-cryptic error messages that the system generates. For example, if travelers accidentally enter two separate departure dates, DTS tells them that they have a “data location mismatch.”
Nonetheless, the institute’s report states, Reservation Refresh “can provide the best access to flight inventories and optimum flight selection available in the marketplace at this time. No other government travel process currently utilizes that approach.”

Year of the customer

DOD officials, who said they are pleased with the institute’s conclusion, added that Reservation Refresh was a result of a year’s work on customer satisfaction. “One of the things we really wanted to do is listen to the customer,” said David Fisher, director of DOD’s Business Transformation Agency. “We heard a lot of pain.”

Pentagon officials created BTA in late 2005 to oversee troubled DOD programs, such as DTS. The Defense Finance and Accounting Service previously managed the program. When the new managers took over, they recognized that work on the system had not focused on usability.

One difficulty, for instance, is that much of what DTS does is hidden from users. The system interfaces with about three-dozen DOD information systems that handle accounting, cash flow and data storage. Creating interfaces and enforcing security at all those touch points are time-intensive tasks, say technical experts familiar with the system. Before the system authorizes travel, it must link to external systems to determine whether there is money to pay for the requested travel.

But having the best back-end system in the world doesn’t matter if the front end discourages people from using it, Fisher said, and that’s why BTA made improving the look and feel of DTS its first priority. For example, DTS used to return search results in no particular order, but it now orders results from the cheapest and most restrictive conditions to the most expensive and least restrictive. Travelers can click on tabs to move from one group of fares to the next.

“Clearly, use of the tool is going up,” Fisher said. A Pentagon spokesman added that as of July, DOD travelers were using DTS for 51 percent of all temporary-duty business travel.

New management and Reservation Refresh have also placated, at least for now, DTS’ more strident critics in Congress. “We’ve seen progress, pretty substantial progress, in a very short period of time,” a Coburn aide said. “We couldn’t be more pleased with the Business Transformation Agency.”

Next steps

Despite having been in development for a long time, DTS still cannot process all types of temporary-duty travel — requests for temporary duty travel can have dozens of permutations — and it cannot process other types of travel requests, such as requests for a permanent change of station. Adding capability for permanent-change-of-station travel is “one of the big things we’re looking to do,” Fisher said.

Military employees travel for many reasons, and each reason has different rules. Travel to attend a conference is handled differently from a trip for a requested job interview. Expanding DTS to accommodate more types of travel is another priority, Fisher said, as is streamlining the number of travel categories and their associated rules. “Do we need all of these trip types?” he asked.

The institute’s report also discusses the future of DTS with a recommendation that DOD implement a service-oriented architecture. SOA breaks complex information systems into modular components, or services. Common data standards enable the components to function as a system.

DOD concurred with the institute’s DTS report, and Fisher said analysts are examining how SOA might best be implemented. It’s not an easy proposition, he added. With DTS finally gaining traction and poised to satisfy a large constituency, Fisher said, program officials don’t want to break what they have achieved for the opportunity to try a new approach. As a programming paradigm, SOA is still in development, he added.

In many respects, however, DTS might be a good candidate for SOA, according to the institute’s report. DTS contains a number of integrated capabilities that could be separate services: voucher processing, reservation and payment, and accounting. How tightly coupled with a financial system does a reservation system need to be? Fisher said he is optimistic but cautious about SOA.

Finally, there is the matter of older systems. Some military travelers stayed away from DTS because they disliked it. But others worked at military installations that weren’t — and still aren’t — in any rush to replace their current travel systems with DTS. A written response from the DTS program management office said the Pentagon will release an order within months that will require agencies to shut down systems that compete with DTS.

Perera is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at dave@dperera.com.

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