E-travel to arrive in December

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The first phase of an online travel system for federal employees that could represent the next generation of both federal and commercial travel management will be ready by year's end, according to the General Services Administration.

The initial deployment of a governmentwide self-booking engine in December 2002 is the first major milestone for the e-Travel initiative, one of 24 initiatives overseen by the Office of Management and Budget as part of the Bush administration's E-Government Strategy (see box).

But the booking Web site, which will provide a common interface for all federal employees, is only the surface of a very complex system, said Tim Burke, e-Travel project manager at GSA, the lead agency on the initiative.

The e-Travel system will actually be made up of several modules, all based on commercial products: the travel planning module, which will include a Web and phone interface to the booking engine and a help desk; the travel authorization and voucher system, which will handle the rules and regulations; and the financial management module, which will handle the payments, reimbursements and back-end connections to agencies' financial management systems.

Officials chose to go with the modular approach because of the flexibility it allows for a system this large and complex, Burke said. "It will allow us to make adjustments, if one area affects another."

The system is something that is currently not available in the commercial market, but many vendors have expressed interest in a request for information issued in June and the draft statement of objectives issued earlier this month, Burke said.

"We're not really asking them to bring something that is really so new," he said. "We're just asking them to tweak it to a federal focus."

The commercial market has perfected the online booking engine, and there are many potential benefits for the government in moving to such a system, said Henry Harteveldt, senior analyst with Forrester Research Inc. Those benefits include the ability to find commercial fares that could be even lower than the ones negotiated by the government and having the system automatically determine whether the flight qualifies under the Federal Travel Regulation, he said.

But the piece of the e-Travel system that could really make a difference for government and industry is the back-end financial system and automatic reimbursement module, Harteveldt said.

"It does look like that's going to be more sophisticated than what many, but not all, commercial companies" use, he said. "If that really works well, that's the element that could have a big impact on the government travel process and corporate travel management."

Because every agency has employees who travel, there are multiple travel systems and agreements in place throughout government. In June, GSA found that agencies are using six online self-service reservation systems, more than 25 authorization and voucher systems, and more than 40 travel agencies.

The Defense Department will continue its work on the Defense Travel System, with the e-Travel system connecting where and when it is appropriate. DOD is rolling out its system in select locations across the military this year, and the e-Travel initiative is building on the lessons learned from the department's development process.

Many other agencies are on GSA's e-Travel team, and almost every civilian agency has met with the team to discuss how the governmentwide system will impact their own modernization efforts, according to Burke.

The Agriculture Department is one of many that are just starting to plan for new travel management systems. The e-Travel team is making it clear to all civilian agencies that they are required to use the new system and that their financial systems will be expected to interface with the final solution, a goal the USDA is working toward, according to an agency official.

That willingness to work with the e-Travel team is a common response, Burke said. "Most of the feedback we've gotten is that going to a common travel system solves a lot of problems for a lot of agencies," he said.

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Travel tips

The e-Travel initiative will create a governmentwide travel system for all civilian agencies. It will provide a common user interface and help desk based on the Federal Travel Regulation and will include the back-end connections to agency financial systems. All of this will be supported by a single, secure infrastructure.

Some key milestones for the initiative include:

* August — Self-booking engine module request for proposals released.

* November — Contract awarded.

* December — Booking engine deployed across federal agencies.

* June 2003 — Standardized reimbursement/voucher module deployed.

* December 2003 — Full operating capability available.

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