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Government travel for civilian agencies has changed greatly over the years, going from a manual system to an electronic one. This paper will show how government travel has evolved over time, the direct impact from my agency’s perspective, and possible future directions of federal travel.
Initially, civilian travel processing was a paper-based system where travel orders and travel vouchers were manually typed and hand-carried or mailed to approving officials for signature. Transportation was procured by means of a Government Transportation Request (GTR). The accompanying financial transactions were then manually posted to the accounting system. Transportation reservations were obtained through travel agents (now called a travel management center – TMC, or commercial travel office – CTO) at no charge to the government, as this was a time when commissions were paid by the airlines to the travel agents. In this system, all travel authorizations and vouchers were examined for compliance to travel policy up front, with errors pointed out to the traveler prior to payment. Due to 100% pre-payment audits, the reimbursement process often took weeks for the traveler to receive travel funds due to them.
Realizing the inherent inefficiency of this process, the government then moved to employing electronic systems for processing travel authorizations and vouchers electronically eliminating the need for GTRs. However, transportation reservations were still obtained by calling a TMC, or in some cases using a retrofitted commercial reservation system with enhancements for a traveler to self-book transportation or hotel reservations. The systems employed by each government agency were diverse with no uniform requirements. In addition, the dispirit systems did not allow for uniform reporting or policy enforcement. They did have the advantage of having an automated link to the agency accounting system in many cases that reduced the manual posting of travel documents. Another advantage was that some systems employed enough defaults and audits that travel policy began to be incorporated into these freestanding travel systems. Still, an agency needed to have a system such as this and a separate reservation method. At this time, no self-booking systems with an authorization and voucher component were available to process federal travel. Conversely, corporate entities were quick to adopt self booking systems such as Orbitz or Expedia. About this time, the travel agency commission structure was reduced and eventually eliminated; the government was then allowed to pay transaction fees to TMCs.
In both the manual and semi-automated models described above, an agency needed to select a TMC either via a GSA Travel Solutions Services (TSS) contract, or by a direct procurement action.
Fully Automated Model (E-Gov Travel)
That was the norm until the General Services Administration (GSA) coordinated the electronic process and created E-Gov Travel (formerly called eTS). This is a mandated system of three vendors that provide federal agencies electronic travel solutions.
Our agency spearheaded the first E-Gov Travel task order with GSA. We became very involved with evaluating the three vendors that received awards, and implemented not only our Bureau, but also our customer agency partners from our Franchise Fund work on the chosen vendor. This gave us the experience necessary to facilitate an Agency user group as well as a vendor user group involving other government agencies. Both are important as they discuss individual and shared enhancements to the system as well as address any subcontractor (TMC) areas of resolution.
In the E-Gov Travel environment, travel policy compliance is enforced to a great extent by the audit thresholds built into the E-Gov travel systems. This allows for uniform application of travel policy along with a faster processing time. A representative sample of paid travel vouchers are still randomly selected using statistical sampling, commonly referred to as “post payment audit sampling”. This ensures the electronic audits controlling travel policy are functioning as intended.
E-Gov Travel also allows for better reporting of travel data as the systems have standard reports and custom reports can be obtained from the vendor as well as the TMC. E-Gov also allows for faster payments as well as “split-disbursements” that allow travelers to designate an amount to be paid directly to their government travel charge card and/or the amount to be reimbursed directly to them. In addition, there is an interface into the agency accounting system that allows travelers and/or their charge cards to be reimbursed within 3 to 5 business days after submission of a proper travel voucher.
The selection of a TMC is theoretically left up to the agency deploying an E-Gov Travel system. An agency may elect to use the embedded TMC with a vendor’s product or select an accommodated TMC of their choice.
E-Gov Travel is constantly changing and adapting to new requirements in the travel industry. The systems are becoming more user-friendly and intuitive as enhancements are put in place. While it may never be as easy to use as a commercial travel system because it has to incorporate the authorization and voucher process with the reservation process, the goal is to get it as close as possible to an easy system for the traveler. Certainly frequent travelers get very used to them after a few times. Infrequent travelers may have a harder time just because of limited use, but evolving help menus, training and vendor or agency help desks (like the one we provide) guide travelers with questions.
The E-Gov Travel products themselves may have to change as well should market conditions such as new Global Distribution System (GDS) models become viable, government contract City Pair offerings change, and new requirements in travel policy evolve.
A more far-reaching goal is to look at ways to consolidate civilian travel with Department of Defense (DOD) needs. Both groups have unique needs, but have the same mission in that they need to accomplish their respective missions when it comes to temporary duty travel (TDY). There is currently a joint study group with members from GSA, DOD and civilian agencies to look at best practices and ways to accommodate and consolidate various needs in travel policy and possibly one day having a universal system to accommodate both sets of requirements.
There is also the question of relocation travel which is unique from TDY travel. My agency also processes this type of travel and there is the overall question of whether or not relocation travel can (or should) be incorporated into any future travel solutions.
It is hard to tell with any certainty what government travel will look like in the future, but one thing is certain – as long as a civilian or DOD agency has a mission need to travel, systems will be designed or re-designed to allow it will become ever more accepted by users as the best and most cost-effective way to authorize and fulfill their travel requirement. Through continued efforts from GSA, pro-active civilian and DOD participation and involvement with associations such as the Society of Government Travel Professionals (SGTP), and their Certified Government Travel Professionals (CGTP) class, along with input from TMCs, airlines, hotels and car vendors, E-Gov Travel will continue to evolve as the best solution for federal travel requirements.
by Daniel Carozza
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Bureau of the Public Debt, or the U.S. Department of the Treasury.