The Evolution of Government Travel

» Posted by on Aug 22, 2014 in Airlines, Electronic Travel Systems, History and Overview, Payment Methods, Travel Management Centers | 0 comments

Twenty years ago I was assigned to the office that was responsible for travel processing.  In 1989 very few employees had computers and most of the work continued to be done as it had been for decades – by paper.   At that time a traveler would work with their secretary to complete a multi-carbon copy travel authorization.  The per diem rates were looked up in a GSA published book and the secretary would complete the estimates after calling the airline and hotel to make reservations.  Once the paper authorization or voucher was completed it was sent to several people for signature and eventually ended up in the Finance Office.

Once the Finance Office received the documents, a technician verified the per diem rates and quarter day calculations for first and last day as well as other expenses.  Voucher receipts were verified and any voucher with a discrepancy was sent back to the traveler for correction.   Once the voucher was deemed correct, the finance technician would classify expenses into Budget Object Codes (BOC) and information such as the employee’s name, SSN and Accounting were written on to a coding sheet.  The coding sheet was sent to a Data Transcriber to enter into the financial system.   This process was labor intensive, prone to error and in many cases reimbursement of a travel voucher could take several weeks.

In the mid 1990′s my agency implemented Travel Manager, an electronic COTS travel system that was hosted in-house.  With the implementation of this system we went from a paper based travel process to a fully automated one.  Travel Manager contained locations with applicable per diem and performed calculations.  The electronic routing allowed documents to be reviewed and approved electronically.  Once a document was approved it was interfaced to the financial system daily and travelers were reimbursed for expenses within a few days of submitting a voucher.  Although a Travel Management Center (TMC) was available, many travelers continued to call the airline and hotels directly to make reservations and recorded the cost in Travel Manager.

In 1998 the Smartpay program was introduced that made credit cards available to frequent travelers and by 2001 the Federal Travel Regulations (FTR) required travelers to use a TMC to book official travel.  The FTR also requires travelers to use the City Pair Program except in limited situations.  The fairs offered by the airlines are one way which allows for complex multiple destination trips. The City Pair program offers very competitive airfare that can be discounted up to 70% off of unrestricted coach fare and offers benefits such as no advance purchase, no minimum or maximum length stay, last seat availability, no blackout dates, no penalties/fees for rebooking and tickets are fully refundable.

In 2003, GSA awarded contracts for E-Gov Travel Services (ETS) to three vendors and amended the Federal Travel Regulations to require agencies to implement one of the systems by September 30, 2006.  My agency awarded a contract and began implementing ETS in the summer of 2004.  The ETS had many of the same features that the Travel Manager system had with the addition of integration with the TMC.  By using the ETS, travelers have a one-stop-shopping for travel where the process of creating the authorization also includes making on-line reservations for common carriers, hotels and rental cars.  Vouchers are easy to complete as all the traveler needs to do is to update the estimated expenses from the authorization, electronically attach receipts (which are used for post payment audits) and electronically sign to route for approval.

In 2005 Government agencies were required to implement split disbursement.  Split disbursement provides a high level of convenience to the traveler to designate charges they made to their government credit card be paid directly to the bank through the vouchering process.    Another program that began about the same time is Fedrooms.  This program initiated by GSA is managed by Carlson Wagonlit who negotiates rates and terms with hotels in cities that have a large number of visits from Federal travelers.  Hotels that participate are FEMA and ADA compliant, have a least a two star rating from Mobil Travel Guide or AAA rating, they must accept government travel cards and other forms of payment, the rate must be at or below the government per diem rate, have a 4:00pm or later cancelation policy on the day of arrival, last room availability and other amenities. Federal Travelers are to give Fedroom Properties first consideration when booking a room.

The evolution of Federal Travel has been significant over the last 20 years.  20 years ago electronic travel and on-line booking was an idea reserved for Buck Rogers and the Jetsons.  In addition to automation, the government has moved towards consolidation and elimination of stove-pipe systems.   In the future I see agencies continuing to consolidate and automate travel processing as well as to outsource travel services to a Shared Service Provider.  Federal travel may decrease with the popularity of video conferencing and on-line training but federal travelers will still need to be on-site for a variety of mission essential trips that can relate to anything from the economy, civil rights and defense to disabilities, education, and Veterans Affairs.   Travel is an important part of many agencies mission and in servicing the public.  Needless to say, I’m looking forward to being involved in the next twenty years of Government Travel evolution.

by Diana Bonnell

Disclaimer: The contents of this message are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the Government or my agency.  Use of this equipment is consistent with the agency’s policy governing limited personal use.

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