Private practices not always best practices

The General Accounting Office recently weighed in on the Travel Reform and Savings Act (H.R. 3637) currently before Congress calling it an attempt to employ the so-called best of "private sector travel practices" to the federal government.

I really get a kick out of GAO's embrace of private sector best practices as if to imply that the private sector is just chock-full of good practices. How about the three-martini lunch and the chief executive officer who is grossly overpaid for spending the bulk of his day on the golf course? Are those good practices for the federal government to emulate?

But GAO still believes there is great potential for "re-engineering" management of the more than $7 billion government spends on travel each year. GAO contends that by adopting practices employed by leading private sector organizations there is substantial opportunity to streamline and automate the government travel process which will help improve the entire operation reduce paperwork requirements and save taxpayers millions of dollars.

GAO has not done anything but argue for the establishment of a plan that adopts "best private practices." Let's take a look at a couple of key points of the current legislation and what GAO has to say about it.

* Repeal the requirement to certify long-distance telephone calls.

GAO believes this is a good idea and says the Joint Financial Management Improvement Program came up with the suggestion some time ago. A law dating back to 1939 requires agencies to certify that long-distance telephone calls made by employees on temporary duty (TDY) are in the interests of the government before paying for the call. That means peripatetic federal employees must submit receipts for telephone calls they make on the road regardless of the amount.

GAO contends that by eliminating the certification requirement the bill would relieve both employees and agencies of this administrative burden and save money. That's true but in my opinion it also would encourage travelers to make unauthorized calls while on TDY. Has GAO done a cost/benefit study to see how much of a problem this might be? If it has there is no mention of it in its report.

* Use a travel charge card.

GAO believes that federal agencies should join the rest of the world and use plastic rather than cash. A charge card would be used by travelers for all transportation and lodging expenses as well as for cash advances.

GAO contends that this would streamline operations greatly because it would get myriad federal offices out of the cash advance business and simplify accounting.

I think this is a good idea. I remember the long waits I endured getting cash advances and certainly welcome any relief in that regard. Where the report is silent however is how a federal employee would obtain a cash advance using a government charge card. Using an automated-teller machine would be fine. But if it involves going to a bank or other institution then I don't see much time savings involved. In fact it might take longer because the employee would have to go to some off-site location. Very few agencies have a bank on their premises.

Another issue: What is to prevent an employee from requesting an advance in excess of what would have been authorized under the "old" rules? There surely would be a limit on the amount that could be advanced on the charge card but that limit would not be keyed to any particular trip. For example if an employee has an overnight trip and it is expected that his out-of-pocket expenses are going to be $50 under the present arrangement that could be all he would be entitled to.

If he used a travel charge card he probably could walk to an ATM and get $500 for which Uncle Sam would be charged. Presumably this would be an interest-free loan to the employee.Furthermore I cannot imagine the credit-card company not charging interest on a cash advance. If the traveler is charged then it's a raw deal for him. If there is a way to recover the interest charge that entails more administrative procedures. So what is so great about this scheme that makes it a "best practice"? Beats me.

Another provision in the legislation calls on agencies to establish baseline information on their present travel management operation so that they can measure progress and reduce administrative travel costs. According to GAO a recent survey of 70 agencies found that many lacked such baseline data - 47 did not identify any of their administrative costs. On this point I am in complete accord with the GAO. There is no excuse for such sloppy bookkeeping.

There are some good and bad provisions in the travel-reform bill. As usual GAO has gone overboard in its attempt to curry favor with the ruling party by extolling the virtues of the private sector and its practices. I think many of the practices of the private sector leave something to be desired and anyone who thinks otherwise has his head in the sand. Nonetheless there are some provisions in the bill that would save the government money and certainly should be given serious consideration.

Let's not go overboard and assume that everything the private sector does is smart. If everything the private sector does is so good how come so many companies post poor earnings reports and/or go belly up?

Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who is a regular contributor to Federal Computer Week and the author of Bureaucratus Moneyline a personal finance newsletter for federal employees available by subscription on FCW's World Wide Web page at www.fcw.com.

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