What shape will the future of government travel take? Eminent presenters from a broad cross-section of private industry and the federal government discussed the contours of policy and technology Feb. 28, 2017, the second day of the GovTravels 2017 symposium.
GovTravels, returning for a second year, brought more than 410 passenger travel stakeholders together for three days of government-industry meetings, high-level speakers and panelists, and 13 educational breakout sessions.
A pressing need for modernization represents a challenge on two fronts – technology and policy – said keynote speaker Jonathan Mostowski, an acquisition strategist for the Defense Digital Service, an agency team of the U.S. Digital Service. There is a growing disparity between DOD travelers’ experiences in their personal lives and the systems they use for work.
“The reality is that technology in the federal government is not very good,” said Mostowski. “And the reason for that is because most of the technology that we create doesn’t have competition. And competition is really what drives things to be better. As far as government systems go, our travel systems are probably on the better end, believe it or not. They actually work, people can actually do what the system is supposed to do…[but] the reality is travel systems are one of those things that we use in the government and we use in our personal life and it’s really obvious when one doesn’t work.”
Part of that difference stems from the Joint Travel Regulations (JTR), the extensive compendium of policies that have guided DOD travel for decades. Over time the Department added various policies to solve specific problems, but those policies eventually became unwieldy as a whole.
“DTS [Defense Travel System] implements 1,396 of JTR policy, plus another 200 pages of appendices. So really, if you put all this stuff together, it’s more like 1,600 pages,” said William Booth, Director of the Defense Human Resources Activity. “In my view, it happened because way back when, it was a small amount of policy. And then we had [travelers] do something that was inappropriate, and we put in something to make sure that never happened again. And this repeated over the course of decades. And now what you have in the Joint Travel Regulations is a document that actually conflicts with itself in places. We’ve got to get the policy simpler, because if we go with the same policy, and then modify any commercial engine to match, we’re right back at the same place.”
Part of the difference, too, in a government traveler’s experience is the technology behind their trip. DOD’s Defense Travel System (DTS) provides good service, but as a custom-designed system it inherently lacks the flexibility to incorporate the private sector’s rapid advances into a mobile-dominated world.
“If you can imagine 50 years of people writing for themselves, not necessarily writing for the users, I think that puts perspective on the challenge we have,” said William Mansell, Director of the Defense Travel Management Office. “DTS is really not a bad system, but my experience with automated systems is that the systems do what the business process codes tell them to do. So if you have complex policies, what does that tell you about the programming language within the system? So that’s the challenge as I see it…On the other hand, where are we going, and what’s the opportunity? It’s really travel simplification. We’re willing to write the policy for the users and not for ourselves…That is manifested by the JTR rewrite.”
The future of travel, government or otherwise, is mobile. Travel products within airlines, hotels and others have developed a high degree of variation, providing travelers with more options. Better data science becomes essential to managing that expanding product diversity. At the same time, travelers’ expectations are changing with technological capabilities, so there are definite benefits to using a commercial system within the government framework.
“You have a shift going on right now from Baby Boomers to Gen X and after. Those folks have certain expectations, and they want their travel to be very reminiscent of what they see in their personal travel, not a complex system that may be built upon old technology,” said Marques Tibbs Brewer, Regional Travel Executive – Federal for Concur. “How do you balance user experience with policy compliance? That’s where you really have to find a partner – really find a product – that allows you to do that. I don’t think there’s any [one] optimal COTS product that just simply will meet your needs for the long term. You really have to grow with it.”
Bret Kidd, President – The Americas for Travelport, also highlighted travel’s rapid transition to mobile technologies.
“Apps are very quick to develop, competition happens all the time, and that’s what we all expect,” Kidd said. “Right now, today, about a third of the business travelers under 35 book hotels and cars by mobile. And then next year they’re talking about 500 million airline tickets that will be booked by mobile device. And so as we’re thinking about policies, and the decisions we’re going to make, and the systems that will then sit behind each of those – we have to think mobile.”
Conclusion – the way ahead
DOD and the government more broadly are keenly aware of underlying shortcomings, Mostowski said. Indeed, the U.S. Digital Service exists in part to drive a startup mentality, guided by data, within the highest levels of the federal government.
Ultimately, Mostowski contended, the government user’s travel experience can be improved by using commercial-off-the-shelf solutions for software as a service, investing in the data science that impacts travel, and, importantly, streamlining the JTR. Policy is, Mostowski said, something government must be willing to touch. This admittedly difficult, culture change is achievable, Mostowski said, with a dose of vision and tenacity.