Federal travel restrictions are costing money and harming security

Wednesday - 7/9/2014, 2:41am EDT

Commentary by Larry Allen
President
Allen Federal Business Partners

Frank Kendall, the undersecretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics at the Defense Department, is a worried man. He's worried because he knows his agency must stay on the cutting edge of technology in order to ensure sound national security.

Developing next-generation prototypes is essential for the success of our armed services. It is becoming increasingly difficult for DoD to meet this mission, though, as some of the latest advances in technology take place miles away from the Pentagon or any other military installation.

Photo courtesy of Larry Allen

Both senior DoD leaders and industry know that technological leaps made by commercial firms can be applied to defense solutions, often at a reduced cost and time frame from those that are internally-developed. There is a long history of synergy between commercial and defense research and development, with each side benefiting from frequent interaction and discussion.

Such interaction is particularly vital at a time when DoD R&D dollars are shrinking.

In discussions with defense officials and their commercial counterparts, it is obvious that each side knows that there are developments going on in the commercial world that would likely help DoD keep its technology edge and enable the agency to make better use of the R&D money it does have. Yet, DoD leaders can't make the best use of commercial developments because of travel restrictions.

In DoD, as with other federal agencies, travel equals fun, which equals waste, fraud and — of course — abuse. In reality, there is little fun about business travel today, but commercial industry does know it remains a necessity.

The question DoD, and other agency officials, need to ask themselves is: What are we missing by staying home?

This is the question that never gets asked.

Travel decisions and budgets are looked at to the exclusion of what purpose the travel might actually serve. Even if there is not an outright ban on travel for some, the protracted approval process heavily discourages many from even asking. Better to not create the perception that you're wasting money by traveling.

Yet, if flying two hours to attend a two-day conference yields you significant information that cuts R&D time and expense by even 1 percent on nearly any one project, the travel investment paid for itself many times over.

DoD and taxpayers are better off because the travel took place, knowledge was gained, overall costs could be reduced and the U.S. maintained its technology edge.

Travel deniers will point to webinars and podcasts as a substitution for travel. DoD does make extensive use of these tools, and they can fit the need in some situations. Other times, though, there is no substitution for physical presence and interaction. Being able to actually hold an instrument prompts questions and insights that simply can't be gained from a virtual experience. Time and attention is focused on the event, as well, not on the stack of paperwork eerily staring back at you just out of view of the webinar screen.

The current situation is not even a case of 'what you don't know.' DoD officials do know that they are missing out. There is a basic awareness that commercial developments can help the department immediately.

It is past time for DoD to ease its travel restrictions. The mission of national security is too important, whether or not the skies you're flying are friendly.


Larry Allen is president of Allen Federal Business Partners and the former president of the Coalition for Government Procurement. He served as a member of the Multiple Award Schedule Advisory Panel and the "Federal Contracts Report" Board of Advisors. He has also testified before both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.