Buy Lines: Feds walk small-business tightrope with eTravel

Steve Charles

Budgeting is always painful.The trade-offs and compromises required often leave us feeling less than satisfied with the result. The federal appropriations process adds a political dimension that occasionally contradicts strategic objectives that some of us thought were a done deal.

An item that continues to bother me is amendment 437 of the House Transportation appropriations bill (H.R. 3058) to cut funding for eTravel, the new government-

wide travel system operating in some agencies. Scheduled to become mandatory for all civilian agencies by September 2006, its goal is to cut travel management costs in half.

The amendment seemed to take everyone by surprise, including small travel agencies, most of which employ less that 30 people. They have been lobbying to kill eTravel, which, they claim, will drive them out of business.

According to the General Services Administration, the government spends

$5 billion annually in airline expenses and an estimated $100 million per year on the operations and maintenance of travel management services. The eTravel system will replace more than 250 travel booking practices at various agencies, cutting travel management costs by about 50 percent over the next 10 years.

So let me get this straight: There are more than 250 travel booking practices across the government that could be reduced to a Web-based system that will knock out 50 percent of the management cost -- or $50 million per year?

Can GSA prove these figures? Is this system on track? Why did the Office of Management and Budget have no comment on the amendment?

As a taxpayer, I hope someone is preparing the business case for the senators who oversee appropriations and the people who will be advising the conference committee when the House and Senate reconcile their bills. They need to make a business decision that makes sense for procurement of travel in the 21st century.

The sponsor of the House amendment, Rep. Nydia Valazquez (D-N.Y.), said: "GSA is cutting small businesses out, all in the name of streamlining, which they cannot even prove. If this amendment is not adopted, not one single small-business travel agent will be able to do business with federal agencies, and this is outrageous. These mega-contracts clearly have gone too far, and it is time that we say enough is enough." The House agreed by a vote of 233-192.

GSA and the three prime contractors believe that there are plenty of opportunities for small travel agencies to plug into the paperless system. I don't know the details, but I do know that we need to find ways to build systems that achieve the promises of eTravel while leveraging the capabilities of small business in a realistic, competitive way, not by funding outmoded methods no longer used by large corporations.

I believe what is really going on here reflects two larger issues. The first is the unease in Congress about a system that they did not directly fund in the first place. The second is the legitimate concern about the role of small business as suppliers for those items for which the Internet has completely changed the playing field.

Policy-makers must confront these two uniquely governmental issues if we are to realize the cost-reduction promises of streamlined processes that reduce redundancy across agencies and generate valuable strategic sourcing data in the process.

Steve Charles is cofounder of immixGroup, a government business-consulting company in McLean, Va. Steve welcomes your comments at steve_charles@immixgroup.com.

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