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Watchdog Criticizes Process That Led to Cuts in Defense Long-Term Travel Per Diems

The cuts reduced employees’ willingness to travel, GAO finds.

The committee tasked with forming the Defense Department’s travel policies did not properly vet controversial cut to per diems for long-term travel before implementing the change, the Government Accountability Office found in a new report.

The policy, denounced by Defense personnel and members of Congress since it was implemented in 2014, was part of a governmentwide effort to reduce travel costs. It cut reimbursements for long-term temporary duty travel by 25 percent for trips between 31 and 180 days, and by 45 percent for travel longer than 180 days.

Lawmakers have targeted the policy a number of times since its implementation. Last year’s National Defense Authorization Act included a provision allowing agency leaders and service secretaries to waive the rule, and last month, Sens. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Mike Rounds, R-S.D., introduced legislation that would repeal the rule altogether.

GAO studied the effect of the rule change after a request by Congress as part of the fiscal 2016 NDAA.  A majority of officials at Defense Department depots found employees were less willing to volunteer for long-term TDY under the new policy than before the per diem cuts were implemented, the watchdog said. But those officials said the policy did not affect operations at the facilities.

GAO officials also criticized the lack of transparency regarding how the Defense Department’s Per Diem, Travel and Transportation Allowance Committee approved the rule change.

“The committee does not have procedures to ensure that required processes are completed prior to finalizing a major [Joint Travel Regulation] change, and its assessment of costs and benefits was not comprehensive, lacking other potential costs and benefits that could result from the policy change,” GAO wrote.

Among the deficiencies was the fact that, in analyzing the proposal, the Defense Travel Management Office only looked at data from the Defense Travel System to determine how many employees would be affected, despite the fact that the DTS only accounts for 70 percent of agency travel. And of all the components of the Defense Department, only the Air Force provided data that was “specific to cost-savings.”

GAO also said the committee approved the rule change despite a 2011 report that found that Defense travelers would be unable to secure long-term travel at 55 percent of the governmentwide per diem rate without a formal negotiated rate program in place.

Although officials developed a plan for assessing the success of the rule change last year, the strategy did not take a comprehensive approach to cost-benefit analysis, the GAO concluded. Depot officials told auditors that it is more difficult to find hotels that will accept the new flat rate per diem for TDY and that the length of time searching for lodging has increased from less than an hour to more than a day.

Auditors recommended that the Defense Department revise the policy to make it more clear what documentation is required from employees on long-term TDY, establish procedures to ensure that changes to the Joint Travel Regulations are properly vetted, and incorporate more comprehensive cost-benefit analyses into both studies of future changes and evaluation of recently implemented rules.

Defense officials concurred with all recommendations, and said they already have begun work to implement them.