Opportunities Exist to Improve Data and Information Sharing
GAO-16-657: Published: Jul 21, 2016. Publicly Released: Jul 21, 2016.
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What GAO Found
The Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, State, and Veterans Affairs, the six federal agencies with the largest travel spending in fiscal year 2015, pursued a variety of cost-saving efforts that generally aligned with regulations and guidance issued in either Federal Travel Regulation (FTR) amendments or General Services Administration (GSA) travel bulletins from fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2015. GSA administers and revises the FTR—which interprets statutory and other policy requirements to ensure that official travel is conducted responsibly—and minimizes administrative costs. Although GSA does not have the authority to enforce the FTR, it issues FTR amendments and travel bulletins to help federal agencies manage their respective travel programs and achieve travel cost savings through the provisions contained in the amendments and travel bulletins. GSA FTR amendments and travel bulletins issued between fiscal years 2011 and 2015 contained a total of 27 cost-saving provisions. Agency officials at each of the six selected agencies stated that their respective agencies either had policies in place that already addressed the cost-saving provisions; developed new travel policies or issued guidance that reinforced the provisions or updated existing policies related to the provisions; or advised employees to follow the FTR without implementing an agency-specific policy.
The six agencies reported that GSA's review of the FTR to revise obsolete and outdated policies influenced their actions and resulted in cost savings. However, most of these savings could not be quantified. Only four cost-saving efforts at two agencies—the Departments of Defense and Justice—could be quantified. These agencies reported that a wide range of factors influenced their cost-saving efforts. In addition to FTR-compliance efforts, these agencies reported that administration actions on reducing travel costs, cutting waste, and promoting efficient spending influenced their approaches to managing travel costs. Agency officials also reported that broader efforts to improve operational efficiency, and efforts to responsibly use resources, also influenced their agency-specific policies and practices to promote efficient travel spending.
According to GSA and officials from the six selected agencies, data limitations existed both within the selected agencies in terms of their ability to quantify travel-related cost savings, and government-wide in terms of comparing and aggregating travel data across agencies. Without standardized reporting practices, the federal government lacks common metrics for identifying, comparing and evaluating travel spending across federal agencies. The Senior Travel Official Council (STOC) was formed in 2015 to identify efficiencies and discuss best practices related to travel cost savings. According to its charter, the STOC allows agencies to work toward more consistent reporting of travel data and share information on cost-saving efforts. Although the STOC has taken some initial action to bring agencies together, additional efforts to facilitate agencies' information sharing and identification of promising practices could further enhance these efforts to encourage and achieve travel cost-saving across the federal government.
Why GAO Did This Study
Federal agencies rely on travel to achieve a broad range of missions. GSA helps agencies develop travel policy by providing guidance to agencies, including issuing and revising the FTR. The administration and GSA have encouraged agencies to take steps to adopt cost-savings efforts and promote efficient travel spending.
House Report 112-136 included a provision for GAO to report on whether FTR revisions resulted in measurable reductions in travel costs. This report: 1) describes selected agencies' actions taken to address FTR revisions; 2) determines the extent to which FTR revisions led to cost savings; and 3) determines any cost savings achieved during fiscal years 2012 to 2015. GAO reviewed information from six selected federal agencies with the largest amount of travel spending in fiscal year 2015. GAO also reviewed how these agencies responded to GSA's FTR amendments and travel bulletins to achieve cost savings.
What GAO Recommends
GAO recommends that the Administrator of GSA should work with the STOC to: 1) develop a travel data management approach that would provide GSA with more consistent travel cost data; and 2) as chair of the STOC, identify and implement promising practices to help agencies leverage travel resources and achieve cost savings.
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Recommendations for Executive Action
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: According to GSA officials, GSA will take the following actions: (1) conduct a test program to determine the opportunities and barriers for creating a reliable, standardized data repository containing government-wide travel spending data (pending OMB Director approval); (2) develop and test, in coordination with volunteer agencies and the GSA City Pairs Program personnel, an airfare savings dashboard that assimilates data from multiple sources and provides information on savings and opportunities for additional airfare savings by agencies; (3) publish an FTR Bulletin that identifies 5 core travel Key Performance Indicators that all agencies should use to improve travel management via standardized data; and (4) identify and promote consistent adaptation of standardized default configurations of air and lodging choices within all E-Gov Travel Service 2 systems. As of August 2017, according to agency officials, they expect to implement this recommendation by the end of September 2017. On May 18, 2018, GSA officials provided a status update on the actions taken to address this recommendation. According to GSA, the agency worked with the Senior Travel Officers Council in December of 2016 to develop a travel voucher pilot program with the objective of having the ability to extract travel voucher transaction level data from agencies, and to facilitate normalizing and assimilating the data into one acessible data location. In a final report on the pilot program, GSA officials reported that: (1) current travel systems are designed for processing the booking and financial reimbursement of travel; (2) the greatest barrier to the pilot was gaining access to the agency travel data; and (3) after the data is retrieved from the agencies, the normalization process is resource demanding. However, officials also reported that basic data can be analyzed, resulting in information rich detail for decision making. Therefore, GSA will continue to pursue means to accomplish a travel data strategy for government-wide and agency travel management. On August 8, 2018, GSA officials again provided a status update on the actions taken to address this recommendation. According to agency officials, the unique configurations by individual agencies and disparate data elements without standardized data definitions in the current ETS systems, ConcurGov and CW's E2 Solutions, prevent GSA from evaluating government-wide travel costs with any degree of confidence. Travel system data is owned by individual agencies. In order to obtain release of the data, GSA would have to establish individual Inter-Agency Agreements (IAA) with every agency before collecting the data. However, even after GSA obtains the data, it is a cost-prohibitive, extremely challenging, and time-consuming venture to normalize the data for any government-wide analysis and benchmarking. Given the barriers and limitations of the current travel systems' data, GSA continues to assess the best path forward to pursue a viable solution working across government through the Senior Travel Officials Council and the Executive Steering Committee for the ETSNext requirements and shared services standards. This will require a business case justification and risk assessment to make the determination for any potential implementation prior to the ETSNext new contract targeted for 2027. In August 2019, GSA officials provided a status update reporting that the test case initiated in 2018 has been completed. The data from GSA's internal travel program provided insight into policy opportunities. Additionally, officials are collecting aggregate-level data from the agencies rather than agency-specific travel system data. Reporting information is available on the Internet at https://www.gsa.gov/policy-regulations/policy/travel-management-policy/travel-reporting.
Recommendation: The Administrator of General Services, in consultation with the STOC, should develop a travel data management approach, including common reporting formats that would provide GSA with more consistent travel cost data allowing GSA to compare travel costs across federal agencies. GSA could also include in this data management approach the planned implementation of the shared services model that would allow agencies to share a wide range of travel services with each other. This process could reduce both administrative costs and burden to the government and enable data-driven decision making.
Agency Affected: General Services Administration
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: On August 2, 2017, GSA officials told us that they have begun work with members of the STOC from EPA, NSF, DOJ and other ad hoc members and delegates of the STOC to identify promising opportunities for travel cost savings and efficiencies to be shared with membership across all Government. To this end, GSA and OMB have developed an online portal (the MAX portal) as a venue for sharing best practices and information related to travel. The portal allows for promising practices identified by agencies to be uploaded along with instructional information and shared widely across participants.
Recommendation: The Administrator of GSA, as chair of the STOC, should work with the STOC to identify promising opportunities and implement leading practices to help agencies leverage their travel resources and implement travel cost-saving efforts.
Agency Affected: General Services Administration