Travel Governance Council adopts strategic path for Department’s travel systems, policies
The Program Support Center hosted the monthly Travel Governance Council meeting at the Hubert H. Humphrey Building in Washington, D.C. June 21.
At the June meeting, the council agreed to adopt a unified systems approach to travel that will see the consolidation of the various travel instances into the fewest number possible so they can be operated under standardized common business rule classes and with the least amount of unique configuration and customization necessary, while at the same time providing Operational Divisions with less-stringent policy settings.
The council Executives agreed that that the next step of the process toward a consolidation will be the performing of an analysis by Concur Technologies, Inc. of each OpDivs’ travel authorization and voucher policy settings, followed by a presentation by the company to the Travel Leadership Coalition members and the council’s Executives of the recommended roadmap and plan for realizing the consolidation. The Executives also agreed that the OpDivs would adopt uniform policy settings and business practices for travel. After Concur presents its recommended roadmap, the Program Support Center will coordinate the policy settings effort by hosting a series of development sessions with the OpDivs.
The overall objective of this effort is to reduce the shifted costs of travel operations, reduce the number of full-time system administrators required to operate the system and allow them to focus on their principal duties, to centralize and save costs for specific services, to enable quicker and more efficient identification and resolution of technical issues, and to enable other decision making and activities that will improve overall efficiencies in the area of travel across the Department.
The Travel Governance Council is the Executive governing body for Departmental travel matters, and sets the Department’s strategic path and its priorities. It meets on the third Tuesday of every month.
Current travel voucher payment rate for FY16 at 4.3 days
The Program Support Center is pleased to report that the Department’s average time to pay travel vouchers for the fiscal year was 4.3 days as of May 31, beating the Government-wide performance standard by 25.7 days.
The Federal Travel Regulation requires agencies to pay travelers within 30 days of a proper voucher being filed. Once paid, it takes about three days for a travel voucher payment to make its way into a traveler’s bank account or be applied to their IBA credit card if Split Pay is used.
The filing of proper vouchers in a timely fashion still continues to present a challenge to the Department’s travelers, who take an average of 17.6 days to file their vouchers. The Federal Travel Regulation establishes that travelers must file a travel voucher within 5 working days after the trip or period of travel has ended.
PSC steeply discounts Regional instructor-led Summer classes; Canceled Boston, NYC and Kansas City to be rescheduled
Students who register through the Learning Management System for Program Support Center-offered regional instructor-led travel courses scheduled to start after June 1, 2016 will receive a 50 percent discount off the listed course fee. “Early bird” registrants can also obtain an additional 10 percent discount.
The discounts are offered to increase regional student turnout and avoid cancelation of classes that are scheduled as part of the Summer-long effort to further stabilize Operational Division travel programs in the respective U.S. Department of Health and Human Services regions.
PSC also plans to re-schedule classes for Boston, New York City, and Kansas City that were canceled due to low student registration levels. Training dates in these cities will be announced by PSC once training room reservations are confirmed.
The discount applies to the 2-day Federal Travel Arranger role classes. And, students who register at least 21 days prior to the start of the class will receive an additional 10 percent discount. These limited-time discounts can lower the cost of the training to as little as $143 per person in some locations.
The discounts will be applied retroactively to registrations already received for upcoming classes, and will not apply to past classes. New registration forms are not needed. Purchase cards will be billed the discounted rate vice the published rate.
The PSC training cancelation policy will remain in effect: the fee will be applied when students fail to cancel within 21 days of the first day of class or who register, but do not attend. Managers are encouraged to substitute students if a registered student cannot attend a scheduled class for some reason.
Course pricing will return to normal for all classes scheduled to start after Oct. 1, 2016.
The discount does not apply to OpDiv-specific training ordered through a technical and price proposal.
PSC launches 6-month push toward travel stabilization
The Program Support Center has initiated a six-month objective-driven effort to establish travel throughout the Department as having reached a sufficiently manageable operational state.
The drive comes on the heels of months of efforts by the PSC and the Operational Divisions’ travel program and travel system experts to resolve key technical, process and policy challenges that resulted from implementing an altogether new travel management system after being on the legacy system for nearly 10 years.
Key activities of the push will include:
- A Summer-long series of training classes in the various HHS regions
- Revising of job aids and other training and information materials
- OpDiv self-assessment of the local states of travel programs and operations to determine if travel is programmatically “stable”
- Improvements to the CTIP middleware application
- Support of the NIH/CIT TIBCO platform refresh
- Movement of the legacy GovTrip data to its final repository
- Enhanced coaching for Lead Federal Agency Travel Administrators, and more
Progress is already being made toward overall stabilization, with PSC having delivered a new Profile Administration Tool (PAT) that enables the OpDivs’ travel program staffs to directly enter traveler profiles into the travel management system via the Common Transportation Integration Platform.
Travelers cannot be reimbursed for fees resulting from improper expenditures
An Operational Division recently sought policy guidance from the Program Support Center regarding a traveler who sought reimbursement on a travel voucher for currency conversion fees. The currency conversion fees claimed were for purchases made using the Government travel card, but those purchases were not legitimate, authorized travel expenses.
Travelers cannot be reimbursed for any expense that is not a legitimate, authorized travel expenses. Therefore, any subsequent fees or charges resulting from illegitimate, unauthorized travel expenditures are not reimbursable either.
Proper, accurate vouchers and Approving Official scrutiny can prevent False Claims Act violations
Travelers should take care to ensure vouchers filed are accurate and they should keep in mind that a signed and submitted voucher is an attestation of a true and proper claim to the United States Government.
Travelers who submit false, fictitious or fraudulent travel claims can be criminally prosecuted under 18 USC 287 and 1001, and 31 USC 3729, and –if they are a federal employee-- they could also be simultaneously subject to adverse administrative action regardless of the outcome of any criminal matter.
When suspicious expenses listed on vouchers are detected through voucher audits, the vouchers are subjected to extensive review. Adjustments might be made to vouchers by an accounting technician when there appears to be a minor error, such as transposing of numbers. However, when there appears to be a violation of the False Claims Act or other suspect claims, a referral is made to the Office of Inspector General.
Approving Officials must act with integrity in all travel matters and exercise the special trust that has been placed in them as stewards of the public’s funds. Approving Officials should remain cognizant that they, too, can be held responsible for failing to perform their fiduciary responsibility to examine all travel vouchers for accuracy, and for failing to question and reject claims that are unreasonable, improper, not authorized, or not supported by sufficient documentary evidence when required or demanded. Approving Officials have the right to obtain justifications for travel expenditures from travelers. Above all, Approving Officials must not “rubber stamp” travel authorizations and vouchers regardless of the traveler’s position, authority, stature, pay grade, education, or accolades.
Program offices are reminded that suspected instances of travel fraud must be reported to the HHS Office of Inspector General.
Partial fix has been made for CTIP ‘Roll-up Codes’ issue
Recently a software code change was made to the Common Transportation Integration Platform to address the problem where documents created under very specific circumstances stopped at CTIP and the status for those documents would remain in a "pending” state for an extended period of time until manual intervention was applied. Also, it kept those travelers affected from being able to create vouchers.
Documents stalled when travelers selected the Rollup code (Expense Category Code) as CBA and the Payment Method as PERSONAL for COM.CARR and COM.CARR.RAIL expenses.
The issue affected about 60 to 80 travel documents each month at the various OpDivs. CMS was not affected by the issue.
CTIP’s software code was enhanced to support this rollup code and payment method combination. Now, PSC has developed an automated process so that there’s no need for manual intervention in order to process those documents that have Expense Category Code as CBA and Payment Method as “PERSONAL for COM.CARR and COM.CARR.RAIL.”
This solution fixes part of the issue, and it’s anticipated that it will address about one-third of the instances of occurrence. PSC will resume work on this issue once the development team completes its part of the NIH/CIT TIBCO platform upgrade project.
In the meantime, Lead FATAs should learn to recognize the issue and apply the workaround developed by the PSC travel account management team. The workaround has been shared in the bi-weekly Lead FATA meeting.
PSC will notify the OpDivs once work resumes on this issue, as well as when it is fully addressed.
Instructor-led training must be paid in full with a Purchase Card before class date
Employees who sign up for instructor-led training through the Learning Management System must ensure that their class seat is paid for and they receive a written confirmation by e-mail from PSC’s training coordinator.
A valid Government-issued Purchase Card is the only form of payment accepted for individual class seats at instructor-led training offered through the HHS Learning Management System.
Class seats are not guaranteed until the Purchase Card payment has been processed. Registrants will not receive the required e-mail confirmation from the PSC training coordinator if their payment is rejected for any reason.
Prospective students must obtain local permission to attend and have the class purchase form completed by an authorized Purchase Card holder in order to have their attendance confirmed and their class seat guaranteed.
PSC has experienced instances of registrants attempting to procure seats in instructor-led classes offered through the LMS by submitting SF-182 training forms, their Individually Billable Account government travel cards, and even personal credit cards. And, students have registered and attended classes without supervisory knowledge and approval. A valid Government Purchase Card is the only form of payment that will be accepted for individual seats in instructor-led travel training classes offered through the LMS.
A considerable amount of work is performed to ensure students receive the highest quality instruction that can be provided, including revising curriculum and training materials with up-to-the-minute information. For this reason, PSC must confirm payment has been made in full before a student’s class seat is confirmed.
Special characters should be avoided in the ConcurGov travel management system
ConcurGov system users should avoid using special characters when entering information into any free-form text field. The system is based on the Extensible Markup Language (XML) programming language in which special characters are read as though they are part of the code.
Special characters will not absolutely cause document issues. The system proprietor and developer, Concur Technologies, Inc., continually devises ways to mitigate the effect of special characters input by users by developing validation tests and using “find and replace”-type code, which is a normal industry practice.
Still, there are some “safe practices” that users can apply that could help reduce the risk of special characters affecting travel documents:
- Avoid using “Cut and Paste” to enter text, “Wingdings,” “emojis” or other unique or special characters into the system’s form fields.
- When entering free-form text, such as when writing audit justifications and such, avoid ending sentences with punctuation, including exclamation points, periods and quotation marks.
Concur advises in its technical documentation:
- “Special characters (such as ', ", /, \, #, &, !, and others) should not be used in ConcurGov, unless specifically documented otherwise.
- “Names of users, travelers, and locations should only include alphanumeric characters. Names of documents may include alphanumeric characters, plus the hyphen (-), the underscore (_), and blank spaces, but no other special characters.
- “Names of organizations may include alphanumeric characters plus the pipe (|), hyphen (-), underscore (_), colon (:), and period (.). In particular, double quotes should not be used in document names, user names, or comments.”
Anyone who experiences an issue with special characters in data or documents should capture a screen shot of the issue experienced and provide it to their Lead FATA. The Lead FATA should consult with their PSC Account Manager to determine if the issue is something that Concur will address through one of its pending Service Update releases, or if it is a new issue that should be reported to the Concur Tier 2 technical help desk.
Travel charge card policy, program changes being considered to reduce delinquencies, improve internal control
The Program Support Center is considering a series of travel charge card policy and program changes in an effort to:
- Improve the usefulness of IBAs for international travel,
- Foster timely filing of travel vouchers,
- Reduce the Department’s travel charge card delinquency rate,
- Improve the overall card rebate rate,
- Improve internal control over travel charge cards,
- Operationalize the Government Charge Card Abuse Prevention Act of 2012 and OMB Directive M-13-21, and
- Anticipate upcoming policy changes by the U.S. General Services Administration.
PSC will establish a means for Agency/Organization Program Coordinators, OpDiv travel program managers and financial management partners to preview and comment on any proposed policy language. Proposed language will also be introduced to the Travel Leadership Coalition. It is planned that the review and comment process will be developed and communicated during August or September.
GSA has indicated it’s considering a number of travel charge card policy changes that, if implemented, would likely increase the number of travel card holders at federal agencies, and which would obligate increased use of the Individual Billable Account card.
In anticipation of this, key proposed policy changes being considered for the Department include:
- Annual travel charge card refresher training
- Re-training for anyone whose travel card is suspended before allowing the bank to reactivate the employee’s card
- Higher credit thresholds to increase use of IBAs for international travel
- Pre-trip vouchering for international travel air fare procured using an IBA
- Requiring split disbursements (a.k.a. “Split Pay”) to be made directly to IBAs for air fare, lodging and rental cars
- Add to the travel card application process separate acknowledgements of the card holder’s obligation to file travel vouchers within five days and the individual obligation to pay
- A monthly report on management action taken to address delinquent, suspended and canceled travel cards
- Direct management referrals to the Office of Human Resources and the Office of Inspector General for travel card abuse, including timely payment non-compliance
These possible changes would align the Department to charge card management best practices and what is done at other federal Agencies while supporting the overall objectives stated.
PSC is also revising the current travel charge card online training module, and is developing a short travel charge card refresher course. These courses will be released as part of any final policy update.
Ride sharing service ‘surge pricing’, ‘peak hour’ fees are not reimbursable
PSC was recently asked to clarify a traveler’s question regarding the reimbursement of “surge pricing” and other extra fees/surcharges applied in addition to the fares charged by ride sharing services such as Uber and Lyft.
In many cities and areas ride sharing companies have gained local approval to operate, and are becoming more popular with federal travelers.
Passengers sign up for the services and when they need a ride they procure the services through a mobile phone application. As part of the registration process, passengers agree to the terms of the service, and this includes acknowledgement that separate surcharges will apply at times. Passengers have the ability to set limits and notifications for these surcharges through the companies’ applications.
The companies typically charge passengers for the ride service under a three-track fee process: 1) basic fare, 2) “surge pricing” or “peak hour” surcharge, and 3) tip.
Federal travelers and Approving Officials should be aware that surge pricing and peak hour fares for ride sharing services are not reimbursable. The Federal Travel Regulation states:
“§301-10.420 When may I use a taxi, shuttle service or other courtesy transportation?
“(a) When authorized and approved by your agency, your transportation expenses in the performance of official travel are reimbursable for the usual (emphasis added) fare plus tip for use of a taxi, shuttle service or other courtesy transportation (if charges result), in the following manner: ….
Taxicabs do not charge separate “surge” or “peak hour” surcharges as a usual practice, so ride sharing service surge or peak hour surcharges are not usual and not eligible for reimbursement.
Ride sharing service surcharges are also often unreasonably high and contrary to the principles of the Federal Travel Regulation, as illustrated by the recently experience of an HHS traveler who used a ride sharing service and was charged a surge pricing surcharge that was 379% higher than the fare itself.
PSC Contact Information:
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To ask questions, comments, add news or subscribe to PSC’s GOing Places Transportation Technical Bulletin, please contact the Editor by email at GOcard@hhs.gov.