2016 Impact Report

Modernizing the Department of Defense Travel System

The Challenge

The Defense Travel System (DTS) provides travel for all Department of Defense (DoD) employees (excluding permanent changes of station). While the DTS does provide end-to-end travel and expense functionality, the antiquated system provides a poor user experience and limited reporting capability. The system has long been a pain point for DoD travelers and officials, and has been scrutinized by lawmakers and auditors. For example, after the Government Accountability Office determined that DoD had overestimated savings for DTS and failed to fix implementation problems with the system nearly a decade ago, DTS added fees for the user and prevented travelers from quickly making changes to their reservations. Lawmakers have required the DoD to improve Defense travel through the creation of the Defense Travel Management Office (DTMO) and providing them with the Defense Travel Pilot Authority to find ways to improve the system and agreements that govern Defense travel.

Currently, the Department of Defense’s travel spend is over $8.7 billion per year. Of this spend, $3.5 billion is handled through the DTS, with a per-transaction cost around $10. In addition, there are over 1600 pages of DoD travel regulations. Despite this, about 100,000 unique users access DTS daily, according to the DoD website.

The complexity of the Joint Travel Regulations imposes a challenge for standard DoD users, as well as Authorizing Officials who administer and authorize travel. Many of the policies make it difficult to apply commercial best practices to the system. For example, the policy precludes the integration of industry-standard features like restricted fares, which could ultimately lead to higher cost savings across the department.

Project Impact Summary

  • The Department of Defense has long needed to improve the costly and cumbersome system used to book, expense, and manage travel for its employees.
  • In March 2015, the Digital Service team at the DoD started working with agency staff to identify a new, commercial tool to better manage travel, and agreed to oversee a pilot test of the new system.
  • At the same time, DoD worked to simplify its complex travel policy, with an eye toward saving millions of dollars and delivering a better user experience.
  • In June 2016, the new software-as-a-service travel tool and streamlined policy were in place, and a pilot opened for “basic travelers.” Both are still being refined.
  • This project demonstrates the potential of pairing policy development with technology implementation to produce more efficient outcomes, and reinforces the principle that using commercial software when minimal customization is required can save the Federal Government significant time and money.

The Solution

To reduce costs and improve the customer experience, DoD is seeking to modernize its travel system with a commercial software-as-a-service (SaaS) product. At the same time, DoD has committed to simplifying the travel policy under the Joint Travel Regulation (JTR). These changes have the potential to save hundreds of millions of dollars per year and improve satisfaction of Defense travel customers. The Deputy Secretary of Defense has directed the relevant human resources and travel offices to complete the policy review and the initial technical transition. The USDS’ Defense Digital Service team assisted DoD and its DTS contractor in identifying a commercial vendor that could meet its requirements without requiring expensive customization.

The Defense Digital Service team is also helping DoD pilot this new system. The pilot, now underway, is focused initially on a small population of “basic travelers” using a streamlined travel policy subset. Over time, the project will scale in size and complexity. Concurrently, an effort is underway to considerably simplify the JTR by consolidating the types of travelers.

Success Criteria Status
New DTS tool released In progress. Tool has been identified, and is currently being piloted.
Policies governing DoD travel simplified In progress. An effort is underway to considerably simplify the JTR by consolidating the types of travelers.
Increasing DTS customer satisfaction rating In progress. As of June 2016, pilot is underway.
All travel request processed in new DTS system Incomplete. Small pilot underway.
Improve data collection to enable better market position with travel vendors Incomplete. Underway.


  • March 2015: DTS Sprint begins.
  • June 2016: First user booked travel in the new system.

The Process and Lessons Learned

  1. Digital services are only as good as their underlying policy. Many of the challenges with the current DTS system stem from the complexity of the Joint Travel Regulations. Without updates to this policy, it will be difficult to modernize the DTS. For example, the Joint Travel Regulations require pre-obligation, which is the act of obligating funds for travel prior to the trip based on the trip’s estimated cost. This pre-obligation estimate is intended to prevent a trip from costing more money than is available, and includes transportation, hotel, per diem, and incidentals. However, many standard commercial travel solutions cannot easily accommodate pre-obligation estimates, so the DoD is working to change the current policy requirements to avoid requiring system customization. One solution being proposed is to estimate total travel costs and make a budgetary hold on the funds so that approving official will not approve trips in excess of an approved budget. Another potential solution also includes making an estimated bulk obligation based on historical expenditures.

  2. Test services with users as early as possible. While the new system is being developed for use by all users, DoD is piloting it with certain types of travelers who have basic requests. DoD is following an industry best practice of launching systems earlier in their development, even when not all aspects may be fully automated. This will enable the team to improve the system based on real-world usage information.

  3. Use commercial cloud software services when possible, but be wary of commercial solutions that require extensive customization. The modernized Defense travel system is being delivered using a commercial software-as-a-service travel tool, allowing DoD to avoid an unnecessary custom software development project. This is a best practice to follow when the commercial solutions require minimal customization to meet the government’s needs. The DoD is seeking to avoid custom configuration requests for this service as much as possible, understanding that the expense and difficulty of such customizations often negate the benefits of using commercial services, and can lead to vendor lock-in.

  4. Modernization efforts should have clearly defined objectives. If the success criteria above are met, this will enable the DOD to achieve the three main goals of modernizing the DTS: 1) Provide users a better customer experience, 2) increase the volume of trips, travelers and trip types processed with the system, and 3) save the Federal Government money. By clearly defining the strategic objectives of the effort, the delivery team can stay focused on what’s important. In the absence of such a strategy, technical and policy constraints can drive product decisions.

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