Thursday, September 28, 2006

The DTS Mess

Unless you work for the Department of Defense, you've probably never heard of something called the Defense Travel System (DTS). The system was conceived in the mid-1990s as a way to save taxpayer dollars spent on commissions for travel agents who made official travel arrangements for military personnel and DoD civilians. Instead of paying millions to civilian travel agents, the Pentagon hit on the notion of creating a computer-based system that would allow defense personnel to book their own travel arrangements, and file reimbursement vouchers once the trip was complete. By some estimates, the Pentagon hoped to save $54 million dollars a year.

Sounds good, right? With high hopes, the defense department launched DTS back in 1998 by awarding a contract to Northrup-Grumman, which was charged with building the system and its implementation. Almost a decade later, DTS has become a Pentagon black hole; total costs for the sytem have exceeded $500 million (far surpassing original estimates), it's at least four years behind schedule, and many DoD employees still don't use the system.

In fact, more than a few go to great lengths to avoid it. First, the system still doesn't show all available flight options between selected cities, and payment of electronically-submitted vouchers is notoriously slow, up to four weeks in some cases. That means the government credit card bill arrives before the payment shows up, forcing DoD employees to dig into their own pockets and pay the bill, to avoid showing up on the list of delinquent credit card holders in their organization.

As for those promised savings, the Washington Post reports that the Pentagon provided only one document to the GAO--a press release from the former government credit card contractor, American Express. In other words, the touted savings really haven't materialized. Instead, they've been consumed by system cost overruns, and (in some cases), higher travel costs, because travelers wind up using more expensive flight, hotel and rental car options.

The obvious question is why the Pentagon launched DTS in the first place. The earlier system, which awarded "travel agent" contracts to vendors like Alamo and CI Travel, worked very well, offering DoD personnel a full range of transportation options at reasonable prices. As for the payment system, that was handled by the local accounting and finance office at military installations; under that method, most vouchers were paid within a week, versus the 2-3 week average under DTS. Prompt payment allowed military personnel and civilians to pay their credit card bills in a timely manner, avoiding "deadbeat" status, and potential punishment from their superiors.

In short, DTS was--and is--a system that is totally wasteful and unnecessary. It's been a boon for Northrup-Grumman, but a total bust for DoD and the U.S. taxpayer. Senator Tom Coburn, the no-nonsense Oklahoma Republican, is trying to kill DTS, and we wish him luck in that endeavor. In an era of tighter Pentagon budgets, DTS is one system we can live without, allowing that money to be spent on more productive enterprises--such as developing new counter-measures for IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Years ago, Russian Admiral Sergey Gorshkov observed that "perfection is the enemy of good enough" and that maxim certainly applies to DTS. In pursuit of illusory "savings," the Pentagon scrapped a system that was more than "good enough" for a gold-plated, all-the-bells and whistles approach that has done nothing but waste defense dollars. When casual civilian travelers have access to far better systems than DTS--produced by the free market, at no cost to the taxpayers--it makes no sense to continue this boondoggle. The rest of the Senate should follow Coburn's example and kill DTS, once and for all.


John (Useful Fools) said...

This is amazing. I have spent many years creating software systems for the travel industry, and we have never spent 1/10th as much on any system.

I'll bet DOD required weapons-grade software development technologies - which can do that to your costs, and probably fail entirely when the environment is changing as fast as commercial businesses do.

Tom Grey said...

Go Tom Coburn -- 2008? Why not?

Perhaps the most honest Rep we have.

herb said...

I am sodamnedtired of GOVTUS reinventing the wheel. Havent these idiots ever heard of Travelocity?


MickKraut said...

I am reminded of a telling anecdote...When faced with the reality that the standard ink pen wont write in a weightless environment, NASA spent over $1M (in 1960s dollars) developing the "space pen"...when faced with the same issue, the Russians used a pencil...

x-loggie said...

I've used DTS for several years. I found it to be fast and efficient. Yes, it cost more and took longer, but name a Government program that doesn't/didn't. Reason initiative was undertaken was to get rid of the cost of hiring/contracting with travel agents/services. The system works, is greatly improved over it's initial launch ... and will be the DoD Travel System for years to come.

No, I don't own stock in Northrup, I wasn't part of the DTS development (or in anyway associated with the program), and I'm not covering someone's caboose. I'm just a satisfied user.

If there are some facts that show the system's not working, I'd like to see them. So far, all we have are some anecdotal misgivings and the Washington Post's usual huff'n and puff'n ... where's the beef?

MSG_Grumpy said...

Alright, I'll tell you a beef. I have been forced to use DTS since FEB07 and travel an average of once a month. In the last 16 months DTS has screwed up every single travel and/or reimbursement. I have shown up at the airport and told "you have no tickets or reservations" on three separate occasions. It has complicated and delayed several of my missions due to problems with orders, travel, and pay. 1/2 billion for this nonsense?