Clipping the wings of indulgent travelers
- By Mary Mosquera
- May 16, 2008
Recent audits of travel records have revealed many examples of federal employees enjoying premium-class travel to distant destinations on trips that should have been booked with less expensive fares under government travel policies.
In a report issued last fall, the Government Accountability Office said agencies spent $146 million on improper first- and business-class travel from mid-2005 to mid-2006. The report cites an example of an executive of the Agriculture Department’s Foreign Agricultural Service who traveled roundtrip from Washington to Hong Kong at a cost of $7,000, while 11 other employees traveled in the same plane in the coach section at a cost of $1,400 each.
Such costly indulgences should become less common when agencies begin using one of three new systems that automate travel oversight under the governmentwide E-Gov Travel Service program, federal auditors said.
Until now, agencies’ electronic systems and manual travel processes have been unable to collect and track travel data adequately or consistently, making it difficult to spot problems until after the trips have been taken and the money spent, auditors said. The new electronic travel systems incorporate internal controls to prevent waste and abuse due to poor oversight.
“Managers should be able to avoid after-travel surprises,” said Ed Murray, deputy chief financial officer at the Veterans Affairs Department. VA recently adopted EDS’ FedTraveler.com, one of the systems available under the E-Gov Travel Service.
The other two systems are CW Government Travel’s E2 Solutions and Northrop Grumman’s GovTrip. Certain features are unique to each of the systems, but the core operating components are the same.
Data from the travel systems interfaces with agencies’ financial and other business systems for better management, said Tim Burke, director of travel and transportation services at the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service, which oversees the E-Gov Travel Service.
All 24 major agencies have awarded contracts and are implementing one of the systems, and about 60 smaller agencies are also participating in the program, Burke said. Cleared for takeoff
The government’s self-service travel sites are similar to consumer Web sites. Using the new systems, employees can create travel plans, submit them for approval, book flights and hotels, and receive reimbursement.
“The system shortens the entire travel process by eliminating the administration” and removing the red tape, Murray said.
The systems automatically notify employees’ supervisors of travel details and will not finalize the plans until budget officers certify that funds are available and supervisors approve the plans.
“In the past, there was no enforceable way to ensure that happened and was visible to us,” Murray said. “There was anecdotal evidence that that did not occur. It’s hard to know without visibility.”
VA had a hodgepodge of electronic systems and manual processes. With employees buying 75,000 to 100,000 airline tickets in a typical year, department executives couldn’t easily track whether employees had received managers’ approval before traveling or whether they had submitted vouchers within three to five days of their return.
“I think the most powerful thing about this [new] system is that we’re going to get that agency-level information we never had before,” Murray said. “It’s all in one place electronically, and we have visibility over all of the data.”
For example, VA auditors and managers can now search for employees who took advantage of discounted airfares under GSA’s Airline City Pair Program or employees who requested first- or premium-class travel.
The systems a lso feature a dynamic approver function, which automatically sends travel plans to all the managers whose approval is required. For example, one supervisor might oversee all first- or business-class travel to ensure that it is allowed under federal travel regulations. Another manager might approve conference travel and use the data to determine if the agency is sending too many people to a conference.
“The idea is that you give management the ability to look at those unusual or nonroutine travel events and actually control them before the travel occurs rather than as part of an audit process,” said Scott Smith, EDS’ program executive for the E-Gov Travel Service.
Agencies’ funding, approval and recordkeeping functions were scattered across several systems. To reconstruct a travel event, it was necessary to query different systems, and the answers might not be consistent. The new systems let travel officials query by destination, time period, justification code or manager who approved premium travel, all in a few keystrokes.
“The idea is not to prevent that [premium travel] entirely but to capture and stop the unauthorized travel and make sure that the travel that is approved is properly approved,” Smith said. OMB orders new flight plans
The lack of routine oversight in the travel-booking process has been costly. The government spent more than $230 million on about 53,000 premium-class tickets from July 2005 until July 2006, according to the GAO report released in September 2007. In a statistical sampling, auditors found that 67 percent of the first- and business-class travel was not properly justified or authorized by a designated official of equal or higher rank than the traveler.
Many agencies properly track and report first-class travel, but others did not know the full extent of their employees’ business-class travel, said Gregory Kutz, GAO’s managing director of forensic audits and special investigations.
Agencies varied widely in their policies regarding premium-class air travel. Federal regulations allow such travel for flights that are longer than 14 hours and don’t include a rest stop en route or at the destination, if the individual has a medically certifiable physical disability, or if the trip is critical to the agency’s mission and employees obtain prior authorization. Beyond those exceptions, federal employees must travel in coach class.
The cost of premium-class tickets accounted for 7 percent of the total $3.4 billion spent on airline tickets in GAO’s review.
Furthermore, the Millennium Challenge Corp., a small federal agency, had the highest percentage of premium-class airline tickets for international travel lasting 14 hours or longer. The agency paid for premium class for 83 percent of the 540 tickets in question. By comparison, the Defense Department, which had 54,650 tickets in that category, used premium class for 3 percent of the tickets.
In January, the Office of Management and Budget directed agency executives to establish internal controls by March 31 to cut wasteful spending and establish a risk-based review, reporting and audit framework for determining when premium-class airline tickets are appropriate.
The new travel systems should help agencies flag premium-class travel and ensure that such travel has the appropriate authorization and justification before such tickets are issued, Kutz said.
Agencies now have the ability to eliminate unapproved premium-class travel, Burke said, but he cautioned against the temptation to be overly restrictive.
“Some missions of agencies may have an immediate need to move, and the only seat left on an airplane may be a premium-class seat,” he said. “The beauty of the flexibility and the configurability of e-gov travel is that it allows you to do both.”
Later thi s mmer, GSA plans to enhance the travel systems’ transparency and accountability by adding a feature that specifically tracks premium-class travel, Burke said. GSA requires the three systems providers to use a set of common data elements, which facilitates data tracking and trend analysis.
Prompted by GAO’s report, VA officials are considering using their electronic system’s dynamic approver capability for premium-class travel, Murray said. Besides the traveler’s immediate supervisor and other approving officials, the system can automatically send travel plans to VA’s assistant secretary for management, who must approve all premium-class travel.
“Even if [users] try to circumvent the system, by tradition perhaps they did with one of the other systems, now it’s near impossible,” Murray said. “The minute you select a premium fare, it will automatically route to our Travel Policy Office, where it will get reviewed.”
The next step for VA is to provide education and training for employees about when premium travel is appropriate, Murray said. The department has already trained 5,200 travel managers and approving officials, who are expected to train others at their local facilities. It also has added an online training component through its financial services office Web site.