Defense Travel System has few defenders

Lawmakers, travel companies and DOD users all have complaints about the $500M system

The Defense Travel System has cost taxpayers almost $500 million in the past eight years. Lawmakers are vocal critics of the program, and many Defense Department executives, travel company officials and employees who are directed to use the system are dissatisfied with it.

DOD executives say DTS’ problems are symptomatic of a broken process for managing travel departmentwide. Travel companies lament that they are engaged in a seemingly endless contract dispute about their role in DTS. And DOD users complain that the system fails to serve their needs and is clumsy to use.

Critics say the travel program suffers from a fractured management structure, adding that no plan exists to fix management problems. Meanwhile, DOD pays extra fees for services that DTS was supposed to eliminate. And employees waste time and money to use DTS or avoid the system altogether.

“It’s a fiasco,” said a senior DOD official who did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic.

Each ticket booked through DTS requires the intervention of a commercial travel agent instead of being the touchless transaction system that DOD wanted, the senior official said. The intervention creates added fees and prevents travelers from making timely changes to existing reservations. Senior-level DOD officials are the people most affected by the transaction problems because they often travel on short notice.

“You have a very dissatisfied, very senior-level user base, but you can’t change it because of the political realities,” the senior official said. Those realities include the way DOD manages the program and the contractors’ role in travel transactions.

DOD’s Business Transformation Agency and the Defense Travel Management Office, both relatively new organizations, share responsibility for managing the program. BTA is in charge of the program’s information systems. DTMO controls contracting and deployment issues.

The management of DTS is too convoluted and complex, the senior DOD official said, adding that to begin to fix the problem, the department would need to revise the role of commercial travel offices in DTS. Hundreds of large and small commercial travel companies provide DTS assistance to DOD installations under an expired contract written before DTS existed.

DTMO, through the Information Technology, E-Commerce and Commercial Contracting Center, has issued several solicitations in the past six years for a new contract with travel companies, but all of the solicitations have elicited protests.

Carlson Wagonlit Government Travel, the largest commercial travel company involved in DTS, filed a protest Nov. 22 against DOD’s most recent solicitation for travel company services. According to the protest documents that Federal Computer Week obtained, the government is requiring travel companies to offer bids based on misleading or false statistics about DTS usage.

“Everybody knows that the numbers are wrong,” said Josephine Ursini, a government contracts lawyer who represents travel agencies.

DOD had assumed that 70 percent of its travel transactions would be through DTS. But a recent Senate review found that at 42 installations, travelers used DTS for only 17 percent of their travel transactions.

Commercial travel offices must bid and establish fee structures based on DTS use that likely won’t materialize, Ursini said. If DTS use does not increase, DOD will need  more travel agent services and costs will increase further, she said.
The latest DTS solicitation for travel companies issued in August makes travel offices responsible for quality-control monitoring of travel transactions, a function that the DTS software was supposed to perform, Ursini said. “That defeats the notion of auto-booking and self-booking completely.”

Travel industry analysts say information in the August contract solicitation is too unreliable to be the basis for a bid. “They are not sticking by the numbers, but they want you to bid it on a firm fixed-price basis, which is stupid,” said Robert Langsfeld, a travel industry expert and partner at the Corporate Solutions Group.

DOD refuses to fix problems in its solicitations, despite repeated admonishments by the Government Accountability Office, Langsfeld said. “How many times do you have to be told that your proposed terms are deficient?”
DTS has many problems, but the biggest problem is that it simply doesn’t work, said a Senate committee staff member who participated in the DTS review.

DTMO publicizes DTS’ use statistics as being more than 2 million transactions, but those transactions often required more time and money than other booking methods would have, he said. “What the people are doing is calling the travel agent and then putting the information into DTS, and it looks like DTS usage.”

DOD will continue to rely on travel agents, the Senate staff member said. But in the future, DOD should plan to develop a new and effective electronic travel system and not use it until the department tests it, he said. “What they have is an obsolete system, and they need something that’s modern, works well and serves the troops as they intended to serve them.”

Officials from DTMO and the DTS program office declined several interview requests from FCW.
DTS’ use and savings are a mysteryMany Defense Travel System critics cite problems in evaluating DTS. They most frequently complain that the program management office doesn’t track the system’s use and that DTS’ expected savings are based on inaccurate data.

In one instance, DTS program officers issued use estimates based solely on a news article they read in an American Express business journal article, according to a review conducted by Thomas Gimble, the Defense Department’s acting inspector general. The DTS program office failed to keep records that would enable objective evaluations of DTS’ success, the IG found. 

Other oversight offices have reached similar conclusions. In September, the Government Accountability Office released a report showing that DOD overestimated its savings from DTS and that the department’s tracking of DTS use is based on outdated information.

— Josh Rogin

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