Boon or boondoggle?

'Lots of taxpayers' money has been sunk into DTS. We need to know what the taxpayers are getting for their money.'

' Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)

Defense Travel System struggles, as lawmakers consider pulling the plug

With $474 million pegged for the troubled Defense Travel System and one year left on the contract, is it too late for DOD to cancel the beleaguered program and cut its losses?

That was the question several senators asked at a recent hearing to determine if the Web-based travel booking system is a boon or a boondoggle.

Since DOD awarded the $263.7 million contract in June 1998 to BDM International Inc., which was acquired by TRW Inc., lawmakers and critics say the program has run over budget by more than $200 million and behind schedule by four years. Northrop Grumman Mission Systems, which acquired TRW in 2002, is now the prime contractor overseeing DTS.

Continuing woes

'It is highly unlikely that a fully implemented and fully functional DTS will be achieved, even by September 2006,' said Thomas A. Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group in Washington. 'Taxpayers continue to fund the program, Northrop continues to make changes and modifications to the system, yet DTS continues to experience serious problems. In fact, the DTS may not even be able to keep up with commercially available products.'

Senators suggested it might be time to pull the plug when the contract expires next year, perhaps in exchange for a rebid with a new contractor or under a new arrangement with the General Services Administration's E-Travel E-Government program.

'Lots of taxpayers' money has been sunk into DTS. We need to know what the taxpayers are getting for their money,' said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who testified during the hearing. 'Is DTS really the silver bullet that will solve all DOD's travel problems? Will we have something functioning, or was it a mistake from the very beginning?'

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs' Permanent Subcommitee on Investigations, said that, when he was mayor of St. Paul, Minn., he decided to ax a computer system after more than $1 million of taxpayer money had already gone into the program.

The reason? The system didn't work, Coleman said. 'I made the decision to cut our losses.'

In theory, DTS was supposed to have a feel similar to commercial online booking systems such as Expedia or Travelocity. Program goals have always been to move Defense travel from a paper process to an automated one, allowing users to arrange air, hotel and rental car in five steps or less.

Just like commercial booking systems, use of DTS is not mandatory for employees; it's optional.

Accomplishments

Zack Gaddy, director of the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, said DTS is already improving the accuracy of travel orders as well as financial management and record-keeping.

He said, for example, that DOD now has complete travel records for each employee transaction. DTS is operational at 5,628 sites supporting 685,000 Defense employees, and the system has processed over 1 million travel order authorizations and 872,000 travel claim vouchers.

At full deployment in 2007, DTS will be operational at more than 11,000 sites and will support DOD's 3.2 million employees, he said.

Still, McCoy Williams, director of financial management and assurance for the Government Accountability Office, said auditors have identified two key challenges impeding DTS' goal of becoming DOD's standard travel system: The system needs to develop more interfaces that will tie into DOD business systems, and DTS is underutilized at the sites where it has been deployed.

'Not surprising'

'DTS' development and implementation have been problem- atic, especially in the area of re- quirements and testing key functionality to ensure that the system would perform as intended,' Williams said. 'Thus, it is not surprising that critical flaws have been identified after deployment, resulting in significant schedule slippages.'

Thomas F. Gimble, acting De- fense inspector general, said his office has begun another audit on DTS.

The IG issued a July 2002 re- port on DTS that found the program was at high risk of not being an effective solution for streamlining DOD's travel management process because it had not been managed in accordance with either the Clinger-Cohen Act or DOD acquisition policy.

Coleman said he has asked Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in a letter, to suspend any further implementation of DTS until the results of GAO and DOD IG reports are finalized, which could take several months.

The Defense Department counters that DTS is making some clear improvements. Still, Gaddy said, DTS was never designed to meet all the de- partment's travel management challenges.

'Although there are significant benefits that will accrue from full implementation of DTS, it does not solve all travel management issues, and the department is continuing to explore ways to take advantage of emerging technology,' Gaddy said. 'It provides a tool for management of premium travel and unused tickets, but does not preclude the problems.'

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