Energy Department missing big opportunity to cut travel costs

Wednesday - 10/24/2012, 7:38pm EDT

In May, the White House directed agencies across government to cut spending on travel by 30 percent in a bid to slash government waste.

While the Energy Department "moved swiftly" to reduce travel spending by its employees, according to the agency's inspector general, it omitted a sizable chunk of its workforce from those efforts: contractors.

Contractors, who manage and run many of the department's facilities, greatly outnumber federal employees at DoE, making up about 86 percent of its 116,000-member workforce.

They also make up the lion's share of the agency's taxpayer-funded spending on foreign travel, according to an Oct. 16 management alert from IG Gregory Friedman. Over the last six years, 85 percent of the international trips by DoE employees were taken by contractors.

For those reasons, the IG recommended DoE include reducing contractor's international travel spending in its cost-saving efforts.

IG: No 'concerted effort' to reduce contractor travel

Between fiscal 2007 and 2012, DoE employees and contractors made about 109,000 international trips at a total cost of $360 million, according to the agency's Foreign Travel Management System (FTMS). The vast majority of those trips — 90,000 — were taken by contractors.

Contractor travel has also grown in recent years. Between 2007 and 2011, the number of foreign trips by contractors increased by more than 35 percent, the IG found.

"Despite the sizable expenditure of federal funds, the department had not made a concerted effort to reduce contractor international travel costs," the IG found.

That's because, so far, agency officials have interpreted the administration's directive to reduce travel spending to apply only to federal employees, the IG said.

However, had DoE applied the 30 percent reduction goal to international contractor travel, it could have saved as much as $15 million annually, according to the report.

Reducing spending on contractors' foreign trips "offers a significant, near term opportunity to reduce the department's overall travel costs and, in so doing, help address pressing budget shortfalls," the report stated.

DoE promises 'in-depth review'

The department's travel database, the Foreign Travel Management System, could help agency officials better track travel spending. But that will require them to change the way they use it, the IG said.

The agency doesn't take full advantage of the system to "identify overall trends in foreign travel, potential wasteful practices and possible strategies to reduce the department's international travel expenditures," the IG wrote.

Agency officials now use the database mostly to track the process for approving travel as opposed to using it identify potential cost-savings, such as instances when groups of contractors from the same labs all travel to attend to same conference.

Officials agreed with the report's recommendations and said they're already moving in that direction.

The agency's chief financial officer has begun collecting data on contractors costs, and other officials told the IG that contractors' travel costs would be "the first area to receive an in-depth review."

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