Defense Travel:

DOD Should Strengthen Its Ongoing Actions to Reduce Improper Travel Payments

GAO-19-530: Published: Aug 15, 2019. Publicly Released: Aug 15, 2019.

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Elizabeth Field
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fielde1@gao.gov

 

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The Department of Defense reported that its Defense Travel System processed over $965 million in improper payments—payments that should not have been made or were made in an incorrect amount—to service members and civilian employees in fiscal years 2016 through 2018. The system is designed to reimburse individuals after official travel is completed.

DOD has a required plan to prevent and reduce improper travel payments. However, it could do a better job implementing and monitoring it.

We recommended DOD set milestones for and monitor plan implementation, and improve how it identifies root causes of improper travel payments, among other things.

United States service members loading luggage onto an airplane

United States service members loading luggage onto an airplane

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Elizabeth Field
(202) 512-2775
fielde1@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The Department of Defense's (DOD) Defense Travel System (DTS)—the primary system DOD uses to process travel payments—accounts for most of DOD's travel payments. DOD spent $18.3 billion on DTS travel payments from fiscal years 2016 through 2018, while incurring a reported $965.5 million in improper travel payments. In that period, DOD averaged $6.1 billion in DTS travel payments and $322 million in improper travel payments annually. Not all improper travel payments—such as legitimate payments that initially lacked supporting documentation―represented a monetary loss to the government. Officials said DOD first estimated a monetary loss from improper travel payments in fiscal year 2017. For fiscal years 2017 and 2018 it estimated a total monetary loss of $205 million out of $549 million in improper DTS payments (see fig.).

Defense Travel System Total and Improper Travel Payments (Fiscal Years 2017 and 2018)

Defense Travel System Total and Improper Travel Payments (Fiscal Years 2017 and 2018)

In October 2016, DOD established a Remediation Plan to reduce improper travel payments and a committee to monitor implementation of the plan at 10 DOD components. DOD selected these 10 components because they accounted for a significant percentage of total travel payments. However, DOD did not take into account the components' own estimates of their improper payment rates. As of March 2019, only 4 of the 9 components that responded to GAO's survey had completed all of the plan's requirements, in part because of a lack of milestones in the plan and ineffective monitoring for required actions. As a result, DOD does not have reasonable assurance that its actions have been sufficient.

DOD has mechanisms to identify errors leading to improper travel payments, and some components have developed specific corrective plans to address the errors. However, GAO found that these efforts did not clearly identify the root causes of the errors, in part because there is no common understanding of what constitutes the root cause of improper travel payments. DOD components also have not incorporated considerations of cost-effectiveness into decisions about whether to take actions that could reduce improper payments. Without addressing these issues, DOD will likely miss opportunities to implement the changes necessary to address the root causes of improper travel payments.

Why GAO Did This Study

Improper payments—including payments that should not have been made or were made in an incorrect amount—are a long-standing, significant challenge in the federal government. Both GAO and the DOD Inspector General have reported on problems related to improper payments in DOD's travel pay program.

This report examines (1) the amount DOD spent on DTS travel payments for fiscal years 2016 through 2018 and how much of those payments DOD estimated to be improper and the extent to which DOD has (2) implemented its Remediation Plan and (3) identified travel payment errors, the root causes of those errors, and the cost-effectiveness of addressing root causes. GAO analyzed fiscal years 2016 through 2018 data on DTS payments, reviewed DOD's Plan and documentation, interviewed officials about implementation efforts, and surveyed 52 DOD components about steps taken to address improper travel payments.

What GAO Recommends

GAO made 5 recommendations, including that DOD consider data on improper payment rates in its remediation approach; define the term “root cause”, and consider cost effectiveness in deciding how to address improper payments. DOD generally concurred with 4 recommendations, but did not concur with revising its approach for selecting components to implement its Remediation Plan, stating that it has already taken actions that address this issue. GAO believes the recommendation remains valid.

For more information, contact Elizabeth Field at (202) 512-2775 or fielde1@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD did not agree with GAO's August 2019 recommendation, but has taken action to implement it. Specifically, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) has worked with the Defense Finance and Accounting Service and Defense Travel Management Office to identify additional data on improper payment rates of DOD components not initially included in the selection that were required to implement the DOD Travel Pay Improper Payments Remediation Plan. The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) has considered this additional data to, for example, confirm that the components not actively participating in DOD's Remediation Plan accounted for less than 3 percent of DOD improper travel payments between December 2012 and January 2020. Considering this additional data on improper payment rates should help DOD conduct appropriate oversight of those components most at risk for improper travel payments.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) revises the approach for selecting components to implement the DOD Travel Pay Improper Payments Remediation Plan to consider available improper payment rate data in addition to data on the components' amount of travel payments. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD partially agreed with GAO's August 2019 recommendation, and has taken action to implement it. Specifically, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) required components to submit information on their completion of the Travel Pay Improper Payments Remediation Plan requirements by March 20, 2020. As of March 26, 2020, 9 of 10 components had submitted evidence of completing the plan requirements. According to DOD documentation, the tenth component (Defense Contract Audit Agency) had implemented specific remediation plan actions, such as conducting mandatory role-based travel training, and had other actions in process. Ensuring timely submission of the components' remediation plans should allow the department to have greater assurance that it has taken sufficient actions to reduce improper travel payments.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) expedites completion of the remaining Travel Pay Improper Payments Remediation Plan requirements by establishing milestones for the requirements, monitoring whether the components have completed them on time, and holding components accountable for completing the requirements. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD agreed with GAO's August 2019 recommendation, and has taken action to implement it. Specifically, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) created a new listing of all component comptrollers, and used this list to disseminate the results of the Senior Accountable Official committee's initiatives to reduce improper travel payments, including meeting minutes and trends in improper travel payments. Sharing this information with appropriate travel management officials across the department should give DOD greater assurance that it has taken steps to reduce its overall improper payment rate.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) establishes a mechanism to share the results of the Senior Accountable Official (SAO) committee's initiatives to reduce improper travel payments with all appropriate travel management officials across the department. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD agreed with GAO's August 2019 recommendation, and has taken action to implement it. Specifically, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) included a definition of root cause in the Corrective Action Plan template. In addition, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) drafted a revised chapter of the Financial Management Regulation that discusses improper payments, and included in that revision a definition of root cause. Including definitions of root cause in the Corrective Action Plan template and the Financial Management Regulation should ensure a common understanding of the concept of root cause across the department.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) takes action to ensure a common understanding of the concept of root cause across the department. This could be done by, among other actions, revising the Financial Management Regulation or the charter for the DOD Improper Payments SAO Steering Committee to include a definition of the term and including a definition of the term in the mechanism used to share the results of the SAO committee's initiatives to reduce improper travel payments with travel management officials across the department. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD partially agreed with GAO's August 2019 recommendation, and has taken action to implement it. Specifically, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) revised the Corrective Action Plan template to require components to perform a cost benefit analysis to identify the potential cost for each corrective action to mitigate deficiencies that resulted in improper payments. Including this step in the Corrective Action Plan template should ensure that components will determine whether actions that would address root causes are cost effective to implement.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the DOD Deputy Chief Financial Officer directs the chairs of the SAO Committee, with the input of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), the Defense Travel Management Office and the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, to provide guidance to the components on how to determine whether actions that would address root causes are cost effective to implement. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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