Has the Defense Travel System arrived?

Online booking system is adding users, though some in Congress remain skeptical

GAO was right about this: You really need to shut down the old ways of doing business so you can force the change.'

'Col. Brandy Johnson, DTS program manager

Courtesy of Defense Travel System Office

The Defense Department's online travel booking system is on track to reach 11,000 sites with a capability to scale to 3.2 million users by the time it becomes fully operational in September.

Air Force Col. Brandy Johnson, DTS program manager, said the system has 925,000 users and currently processes 6,000 travel vouchers each day. And last month it rolled out its latest release, called President Monroe, where it added an automated debt management report capability and new procedures for processing debts.

'It seems like we've turned the corner of getting people happy about the product,' Johnson said of the $474 million program. 'Some people now scream when they move to a base that doesn't have it.'

This is a far cry from last fall when several congressional leaders threatened to cancel the controversial program once its contract with Northrop Grumman expires in September 2006. Lawmakers said the program was over budget and behind schedule, and that the department should consider dumping DTS to participate in the General Services Administration's E-Travel program.

Still, not everyone believes DTS is heading in the right direction. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said he remained unconvinced of the value of DTS, which is similar in scope to commercial online booking systems Expedia and Travelocity.

'My investigations on Department of Defense travel laid out more problems than I can list and the Defense Travel System was to be the miracle worker that cleaned up these problems,' Grassley said. 'The jury is still out on the Defense Travel System and I remain skeptical that all of the problems are fixed.'

A recent Government Accountability Office report also pointed to several longstanding challenges. GAO found DTS needed to develop more interfaces with DOD's business systems and said the program remained underutilized at the sites where it is deployed.

'While DTS has developed 36 interfaces with various DOD business systems, it will have to develop interfaces with at least 18 additional systems'not a trivial task,' wrote McCoy Williams, GAO's director for financial management and assurance.
'Additionally, the continued use of the existing legacy travel systems results in underutilization of DTS and affects the savings that DTS was planned to achieve.'
Defense spent $30 million on the development and testing of those interfaces, GAO said. The audit agency added that if the interfaces are not successfully implemented, 'it will be virtually impossible for DTS to be a truly end-to-end travel system.'

Johnson acknowledges that DTS is still not being used to the degree that the program office had hoped.

'It's the proliferation rates that weren't as high as we would have liked,' Johnson said. 'GAO was right about this: You really need to shut down the old ways of doing business so you can force the change.

'If you're not going to get people to use it, how are you going to get the savings?' Johnson added.

Improved alignment

The underutilization appears to be changing. In February, DTS was moved from Defense Finance and Accounting Service oversight to the Business Transformation Agency structure, so the program can be better aligned with other joint business programs across the DOD.

This is a good fit for the program, Johnson said, because she views it more as a financial-management system than an online travel system. She said less than 5 percent of DTS' code is devoted to travel.

The travel system must interface with more than 40 accounting and disbursement systems, as well as Defense databases for tabulating mileage and per-diem rates, a travel records repository and DOD's public-key infrastructure.

'A key focus is all of the travel accounting,' Johnson said. 'The key difference between the commercial travel systems and DTS is [that] when people log onto the system and set up orders to travel, we are already talking to accounting systems and looking at money.'

Since DTS moved to the BTA office, Johnson said, she has seen improvements.

'We now talk to a lot of the program managers a lot quicker,' she said.

Johnson said the program office currently is working to recompete the contract currently held by Northrop Grumman later this year.

Also, DOD has been working closely with GSA's travel program. In April, DOD and GSA jointly released a draft request for proposals seeking a business intelligence tool that could capture key data on how government workers travel.

The tool is expected to help GSA and DOD get better data on travelers to put officials in a better position to negotiate deals with hotels and rental-car companies.

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