VA Travel:

Better Budgeting and Stronger Controls Needed

GGD-99-137: Published: Aug 23, 1999. Publicly Released: Aug 23, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed travel-related issues at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), focusing on: (1) how VA formulates its travel budget request; (2) whether VA's use of excess travel funds is in accordance with guidance from the Senate Appropriations Committee regarding the reprogramming of funds between programs, activities, or elements; (3) whether VA has adequate internal controls over the authority it grants to certain employees to authorize their own travel and approve their own travel vouchers; and (4) whether it has adequate control over employees who are issued limited open travel authorizations, which allow them to travel without additional authorization.

GAO noted that: (1) VA's total budget requests for travel, as contained in the President's budget submissions to Congress, were comprised of estimates developed separately for six appropriations accounts and four revolving funds; (2) in formulating their travel budget requests, managers of these accounts and revolving funds reported that they generally considered the prior year's actual travel expenditures, adjustments for inflation, and expected initiatives or program changes; (3) VA reprogrammed excess travel funds, representing the difference between the amounts included for travel in VA's appropriations accounts and travel expenditures--over $61 million in total for fiscal year 1993 through 1998; (4) VA spent the excess travel funds on general operating expenses, such as salaries and equipment; (5) the Comptroller General's internal control standards require continuous supervision to ensure proper review and approval of employees' activities, as well as separation of duties and responsibilities in authorizing transactions; (6) GAO's review of travel files within four Veterans Integrated System Networks and four Veterans Benefits Administration regional offices found that VA's limited open travel authorizations were being issued to many employees without the required supervisory review to determine whether they were frequent travellers; (7) although neither the Federal Travel Regulation nor VA's travel policy defines frequent traveller, VA's travel policy chief defined a frequent traveller in the context of limited open travel authorizations as one who travels an average of at least once per month; (8) using this definition, GAO found that 220 of 239 employees at the 23 facilities with limited open travel authorizations were not frequent travellers; (9) GAO also found instances where administrative personnel were not obligating the funds associated with limited open travel authorizations in accordance with VA policy, resulting in a possible loss of control over expenditures; (10) GAO found that VA's policy on delegated travel authority was being implemented without a system of controls to compensate for the lack of separation of duties inherent in self-authorization and approval of travel; (11) at 23 VA field facilities, GAO found 5 officials who authorized their own travel and approved their own travel vouchers that exceeded the applicable per-diem allowances without any justification, contrary to VA travel policy; and (12) GAO found that no VA Central Office staff monitored the travel of field employees who had limited open travel authorizations or delegated travel authority.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: VA did not concur with this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct appropriate officials to reexamine the budget formulation process, particularly with respect to the Veterans Health Administration's Medical Care appropriations account, to determine what steps can be taken to improve the accuracy of the travel budget requests.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: VA submitted a letter on April 18, 2000, to staff of VA's House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees, identifying the reprogramming base for each of VA's appropriated accounts. The letter identifies the programs, projects, and activities (PPA) that GAO considers to be subject to the reprogramming directive. VA will notify Congress of any movement of funds in excess of $250,000 between the PPAs. The Committees approved VA's PPA designations, and also asked the Department to track costs associated with certain initiatives of particular interest to Congress.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct appropriate officials to follow congressional guidance directing VA to inform the Senate Appropriations Committee prior to reprogramming more than $250,000 in excess travel funds and see that any new agreements reached with the committee regarding the activities or amounts subject to reprogramming rules be documented.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In October 2002, VA indicated that it has initiated a multi-step process to review and revise travel policy. As part of the revision, VA will issue guidelines on approving official responsibilities and monitoring travel of officials authorized to approve their own travel, and those employees with limited open travel authorities. In March 2003, VA indicated that these guidelines have not yet been issued.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct appropriate officials to periodically monitor travel taken by employees who may authorize and approve their own travel and employees who have limited open travel authorizations to assess compliance with travel policies and regulations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In October 2002, VA indicated that it is in the process of issuing a bulletin on the use of limited open authorizations. The bulletin will contain policy and procedures on issuing limited open authorizations, quarterly reviews of such authorizations, definitions of frequent travelers, and situations where it is appropriate to use limited open authorizations. In March 2003, VA indicated that this bulletin has not yet been issued.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Veteran Affairs should direct appropriate officials to reevaluate the manner in which limited open travel authorizations are administered, including: (1) whether funds are being obligated in accordance with VA policy; (2) whether the authorizations contain reasonable limitations on purposes, geographic areas, trip duration, and costs; and (3) whether the employees who have been issued limited open travel authorizations are expected to be frequent travellers, and if not, revoke or not renew those authorizations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

 

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