Fate of Defense Travel System hangs in the balance

Defense Department officials have requested a study to determine the fate of the much-delayed paperless travel system after an audit report by the Pentagon's inspector general declared the project mismanaged and costly.

Touted as a time- and cost-saving measure, the Defense Travel System (DTS) promised to simplify the planning process for official government travel-from the number of approval signatures required to auditing and processing vouchers. DTS allows Defense employees to request authorization to travel, make travel arrangements and submit claims for reimbursement from their desktop computers. Defense's current travel system uses paper vouchers, invoices and other supporting documents that make the travel reimbursement process long and laborious.

But in a July report, "Allegations to the Defense Hotline on the Management of the Defense Travel System," (D-2002-124), Pentagon Inspector General David Steensma declared the project a potential dud. According to Steensma, DTS was developed outside normal acquisition procedures and, as a result, the money and time spent to date will not improve the current travel system at all.

"When fully operational, DTS was expected to provide an automated and paperless system that met the needs of nearly 3.5 million active duty military, reserve and Defense civilian travelers," Steensma wrote in the report. "Such a process has not been established for DTS."

Based on the IG's findings, Defense Department Comptroller Dov Zakheim ordered a cost-effectiveness study to determine whether DTS is worth the $114 million the agency has spent on the project since December 1995. The report is expected by Oct. 1, 2002.

The launch of DTS has been fraught with trouble in the eight years since the project was first conceived. The project missed deadlines and had to overcome a series of unsuccessful tests by travelers at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., which found that system set-up and help desk operations needed improvement. Program officials also had to endure rumors that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would scrap the project entirely. Earlier this year, Congress declined to allocate an $86 million budget request for the project. The DTS contract is valued at $263.7 million over five years.

Officials from DTS and TRW Inc., the company brought in to develop the system, said the IG's assessment of the project is inaccurate and that much progress has been made in ironing out kinks in the system. DTS Deputy Project Administrator Brion Loftus cited the project's designation earlier this year as a major acquisition project, a move made prior to the IG's report, as a major effort toward better management of DTS. The new designation makes DTS subject to stringent oversight guidelines outlined in the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act. Under the act, agencies must present detailed business plans for large-scale IT purchases.

More importantly, according to Loftus, DTS is already up and running at several locations. To date, 11 sites are online, including Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Fort Campbell, Ky., and the Joint Forces Staff College, Norfolk, Va.

"Another four locations will be up and running by the end of the summer, and a total of 25 will be operational by spring 2003," Lotfus said.

The program will be deployed at 250 high-volume sites between fiscal 2003 and fiscal 2006.

A spokeswoman for TRW, which received the contract for DTS in 1998, declared the system "flawless."

"It's out there, it's being deployed and it's being well received," she said. "I think that speaks volumes for the program. Everything is going great."