GSA set to release RFP for travel site

Federal employees make about 4 million air and rail trips a year and spend more than $100 million annually on fees to travel agents. With the success of commercial travel Web sites, many government managers wonder why booking trips isn’t easier and cheaper.

Soon, the General Services Administration will attempt to make travel reservations a one-stop-shopping experience. GSA this month will release a request for proposals for an online reservation engine.

The Web booking system will be the first phase of the E-Travel initiative, one of the Office of Management Budget’s 24 e-government projects and one of four projects GSA is managing.

“This will be the first step for government travelers to do everything online,” said Tim Burke,
E-Travel project manager and the director of GSA’s Travel Management Policy Division. “This will be an end-to-end booking system that will link all major travel suppliers to the federal government.”

Online travel systems are not new to the government. Many agencies have launched such programs for their workers, one of the largest being the multibillion-dollar Defense Travel System being rolled out now for use by Defense Department civilian and military workers.

Burke said getting the online booking system running by December is the first priority. The system must support airline, rail and bus reservations as well as car rental, hotel and other travel services, he said.

GSA received oral presentations from 13 vendors after releasing a request for information last month.

“What we are looking for initially is a user interface or storefront,” Burke said. “There is some basic common technology of booking engines that doesn’t have to change from commercial sites, but the user interface needs to be for the federal government.”

Burke said he expects the new engine to be based on an open architecture so that a payment voucher system can be added later. The system will use Extensible Markup Language schemas to run the databases.

For these reasons GSA is looking to the commercial sector for this engine, Burke said.

Scalability needed

Agencies now use as many as six online booking systems. For instance, the departments of Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs, and the International Trade Commission share one from Zegato Solutions Inc. of Lanham, Md. And GSA, the National Science Foundation and the Transportation Department book reservations online using a system from TRX Inc. of Atlanta.

But Burke said the systems currently in use do not provide the scalability necessary for governmentwide use.

The E-Travel team endorses modifying a commercial system slightly rather than building something from scratch for many reasons.

“If we did it in-house, we would be responsible for updating and refreshing the system, and it would not be as cost-effective,” Burke said. “Industry would refresh the system more quickly and therefore keep it updated.”

Once the booking applications are running, GSA will turn its attention to incorporating one or two online payment voucher systems that will let employees submit expense forms and be reimbursed electronically. GSA’s plans call for the payment application to be running by December of next year. Burke said GSA will hire an integrator in the fall to make sure the meshing of the booking engine and voucher systems is seamless.

The voucher systems would replace more than 25 similar applications now in use, Burke said.
Agencies will be required to write an interface between their financial management systems and the payment voucher application, Burke added.

The E-Travel site also will include an online version of the government’s travel regulations, and its database will list preferred government contractors.

To make sure agencies buy into the system, Burke assembled a steering committee made up of deputy chief financial officers, deputy CIOs and travel managers from 12 agencies, including GSA, the Navy, and the Energy, Transportation and Veterans Affairs departments. The group has helped GSA develop the system requirements and the implementation approach.

“Agencies would like to have a common place for all their travel needs,” Burke said. “Many still book through travel agents or on their own, and this system will simplify everything.”

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