The goal: To elevate management of the federal government's annual travel spending -- estimated at between $12 billion and $20 billion -- to the efficiency level of the best corporate travel management.

The deadline: All federal agencies were to have deployed the E-Gov Travel Service (eTS), a system being managed by the General Services Administration, by Sept. 30.

The bottom line: Most federal agencies will miss the deadline, although most of the very largest agencies will meet it.

The government is undergoing sweeping changes in the way federal employees travel, changes that are having a profound impact on the way travel agencies deal with the government. But like much of government, the process is far from seamless.

In fact, the picture that emerged in recent discussions with a range of affected parties -- the GSA, travel agents, consultants and the private contractors putting together eTS -- revealed an initiative that is moving forward but faces obstacles resulting from the sheer size of the undertaking, bureaucratic inertia and  a regulatory environment that corporate travel managers do not typically encounter.

For travel agencies that have handled government business in the past, eTS has been a business killer in some cases, a serendipitous opportunity in others.

The GSA describes eTS as "a government-wide, Web-based system that aims to apply world-class travel management practices to consolidate federal travel, minimize cost and produce superior customer satisfaction."

The system is designed as an "end-to-end process," meaning that a single system enables travelers to get pre-authorization, book travel, submit expenses and get reimbursed.

It replaces a decentralized system that the GSA described as "labor-intensive, inconsistent and unable to effectively monitor travel operations," and that "still relied heavily on paper-based systems."

Progress and problems

People interviewed for this report, both in and out of government, differed in their views of how well eTS  is meeting its mission.

An audit released last March by the GSA's own Inspector General, titled "Review of the Effectiveness of the GSA E-Gov Travel Program Management Office," reported that eTS was being "hampered by deployment delays caused by both agency and vendor setbacks." Some travelers, the auditors said, "find the system hard to use, with help from vendors lacking."

Timothy Burke, program manager for eTS, said the Inspector General's report covered a 12-month period that was long past, and that eTS was now "well ahead of that." He said the Sept. 30 and other deadlines had been "aggressive by design."

Many agencies requested extensions, which Burke said could only be granted for "business reasons."

Still, he said, of the 24 largest federal agencies, 22 have now deployed eTS; many of the rest have not yet deployed the system but are making "solid progress."

In those agencies on which eTS is up and running, "online usage has surprised us," Burke said.

"We thought 40% of travelers would be making reservations online by now; in some cases it exceeds 70% and even 80%. And we're doubling usage month to month."

Recently, the GSA stepped up efforts to encourage eTS use, issuing new rules requiring travel managers to submit plans to the eTS office detailing how they will increase their agency's use of the system.

According to the GSA, eTS is capable of "lowering costs by 66% from the off-line, full-service system."

Greg McIntyre, president of MLinqs, a company formed to help federal agencies through the eTS transition, said, "It's an evolution, not a revolution. Adoption is occurring, and it will be inevitable."

Three private contractors

In November 2003, the GSA awarded 10-year contracts (a three-year contract plus options) to three vendors to create eTS systems on a competitive basis: Carlson Wagonlit Government Travel (whose service is called E2), EDS (FedTraveler) and Northrop Grumman (GovTrip).

Each vendor in turn selected a mega-agency with which to partner for fulfillment and other transactional purposes: Carlson does fulfillment in-house, Northrop Grumman chose American Express, and EDS went with Sato Travel, which is now owned by Carlson.

All three have already negotiated contracts with a number of federal agencies, and they are still vying for more contracts. Here is how the three differentiate their approaches:

" Carlson: Scott Guerrero, president of CW Government Travel (see sidebar, at right), described E2 as a "smart system designed to accommodate what's unique to government." For instance, he said, "If travelers have a meal at a conference and do not spend their meal per diem, the system is designed to pro rate their per diem."

Guerrero said E2 works with a computer application called GetThere for Government, which was designed to display customized programs like City Pairs (the government discount air fare program) and FedRooms (the government discount lodging program).

There are eTS success stories, said Guerrero, who noted that "the departments of Labor, Education and Interior now book more than 50% of their travel through our system; that's comparable to the commercial world."

At one bureau within the Interior Department, Guerrero said that "86% of bookings are now made online."

"The approach we've taken is to use our knowledge of the travel business, to recognize that this is not just a voucher system but an integrated, end-to-end service," Guerrero said.

Though the original vision of eTS was "one-size-fits-all," he said, "We quickly discovered that federal agencies migrated to best practices for them individually."

Carlson has "done a lot of work that the user never sees, including complex financial interfaces," Guerrero said. "We also have good tools, like reliable real-time inventory, the ability to choose airplane seats and instant hotel confirmation. And we have a very good help desk."

" EDS: Company spokesman Brad Bass said EDS places its major emphasis on usability. "The mind-set we have is that the user comes first, and we take pains to work with users," Bass said. "We go out to their offices to work hard on training and education and to listen to them."

Although EDS's agency partner is SatoTravel, which is now part of Carlson via Carlson's purchase of Navigant, Bass said, "We will continue to work with Sato. The Carlson purchase does not affect that relationship."

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