Senators take aim at Defense Travel System’s reservation tool
Congressional critics of the Pentagon's $474 million end-to-end electronic travel system are preparing legislation that would block the tool from being used to book airline tickets.
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., outgoing chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, said the travel planning piece of the Defense Travel System does not work. But he wants to keep the system's accounting component because he believes it meets the department's needs.
Coleman said he is preparing a bill to accomplish this change, but did not provide a timeline.
An investigation by the subcommittee found that the system, known as DTS, was used only 17 percent of the time that trips were booked between January and September 2006 by 126,104 travelers at 42 Defense Department locations. The remaining 83 percent of the bookings were processed using travel agents, the report stated.
"The travel component of DTS is a failure and a waste of taxpayer money," Coleman said. "I have concluded that further efforts to resolve DTS' problems will lead only to a further waste of taxpayer dollars."
The subcommittee's ranking member, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said DTS and other Defense information technology programs are troubled by cost overruns and other deficiencies. But he said he did not know if Coleman's proposal is practical.
"I do not know whether the [Defense Department] should pursue DTS to completion at this point or whether it should scrap it and start over from the beginning," Levin said. "I do not know if the accounting system can be separated out from the booking engine."
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said he supports Coleman's proposal to block DTS from booking travel reservations. Coburn has repeatedly attempted to eliminate the system by attaching language to spending bills. On Thursday, he threatened to block the next Defense appropriations bill if issues with DTS are not resolved.
"You'd better find the answer between this time and next year or there isn't going to be any money going to the Pentagon as long as I'm a U.S. senator," Coburn said.
David S.C. Chu, undersecretary for personnel and readiness at the Defense Department, said he wants to withhold judgment on DTS' future until a congressionally mandated independent study is completed. Work on the study is expected to begin in early December, and its findings will be delivered to Congress in mid-April 2007. The review will be performed by a contractor, though one has not been selected yet, and will be followed by an implementation report in June 2007, Chu said.
Chu added that the system's back-end accounting function is "quite good" and makes up 85 percent to 90 percent of the system. He said the issue has become the functionality of the front-end part of DTS, which is the travel reservation system.
"If the system is not user-friendly, helpful to the traveler, people will find ways around it," Chu said. "There are criticisms of the front-end system. I do acknowledge that that is where the problems are."
In response to a question from Coleman on whether it would be difficult for the Pentagon to continue using the accounting system supporting DTS while replacing its travel booking system, Chu said a good deal of the work on the booking system involves incorporating department travel policies.
"We want something that triggers a review if you try to book first class travel," Chu said. "It's not as if you can just take [another travel booking system] without paying attention to the policy controls you want on the front end. There really isn't an off-the-shelf alternative that does what the DTS does."
Coburn's most recent attempt to block funding for DTS failed, but a compromise requires the department to hold off issuing a new contract for the system until a schedule is established to phase out legacy travel tools. The department also would have to develop fixed requirements for DTS and submit the independent study.
McCoy Williams, director of financial management and assurance at the Government Accountability Office, said in his testimony that estimates that the implementation of DTS would produce $56 million in annual net savings were based on unreliable information. He also said improvements are needed to the system to increase utilization.
Thomas Gimble, acting inspector general at Defense, said the department lacks adequate data to determine whether DTS is the most cost-effective way to meet employees' travel needs.