Recreation.gov: We have people’s vacations in our hands

The unofficial start to summer is days away and millions of people are planning their family trips and getaways.

The federal government is hoping travelers turn to Recreation.gov to plan their trip to one of the thousands of national parks, forests or waters. Officials with the Interior Department and Forest Service say a new contract awarded for website service will make it even easier for tourists to plan their trips, but at least one congresswoman is worried the agencies took too narrow a view when crafting the contract.

“Wyoming entered into a contract with a big name company to create a statewide platform to conduct a variety of transactions, from government permits to driver’s license renewals to event reservations,” said Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wy.), during a May 24 House Subcommittee on the Interior hearing. “The state chose a big name company, but they did not have a lot of experience in the field of creating platforms. Later, the contract was canceled, there was a big dispute, we had no platform, it was a mess. So I hope we’re not traveling down this same road here.”

At issue is a contract awarded to Booz Allen Hamilton May 13 by the Forest Service and Interior Department to provide the next 10 years of service for Recreation.gov. The contract is worth $182 million over 10 years. The bid received a protest May 23 and the Government Accountability Office has until August to adjudicate it, said Rick DeLappe, Recreation.gov program manager.

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DeLappe said the aim of the new contract was to obtain something “that is able to grow over time.”

“As we know technology will change and we don’t know what to expect around the corner,” DeLappe told Federal News Radio. “That’s really the technological solution we’re looking for.”

Recreation.gov is an interagency website that allows people to plan their trip to one of these federal lands or waters — from travel routes to lodging to securing a permit or guided tour.

Recreation One Stop (R1S) is a reservation system for federal lands and waters. It was created in 2002 to combine the online reservation services of the Forest Service, Army Corps of Engineers and the National Park Service.

In 2006, a 10-year contract to Reserve America (now ACTIVE Network) combined Recreation.gov and the Recreation Information Database (RIDB)  — which includes information like addresses, site details, permit types and occupancy rates — within the R1S program.

Anticipating a gap

Lummis asked whether any off-the-shelf software already out there was considered, because Wyoming had chosen to go with a very specialized product designed for the state, but DeLappe said he could not talk about specifics of the procurement process during the bid protest.

“The solution that we have awarded is very much custom built from Booz Allen Hamilton,” DeLappe said. “But it’s a little bit different from what we’ve seen in the past.”

Booz Allen Hamilton proposed an application programming interface (API) platform that will allow the ability to “add and change technology” throughout the life of the contract, DeLappe said.

Bulk data that won’t be changing, things like photographs and directions, are currently available for public sharing, and Booz Allen Hamilton has imported some of that into the system and demonstrated how it will work, DeLappe said.

The riskier part, he added, is the more dynamic data that will need to be moved, like a reservation made in the old system but won’t be fulfilled until the new system is in place.

“Booz Allen Hamiltion has proposed a very comprehensive data mapping plan to move that data and to first test that with sample data,” DeLappe said. “So we do anticipate some kind of gap. In the past it’s been as much as a couple of weeks, we don’t anticipate that at this time. It’s the most important step because we have people’s vacations in our hands and we want to make sure we get it right.”

DeLappe said the contract has 15 months built in for development, testing and deployment, but timing depends on GAO’s decision on the bid protest.

Lummis asked DeLappe whether there were plans for a product that could work with third-party travel sites like Kayak.

DeLappe said that kind of process not only requires increased technical requirements for the API process, but also factors in federal business laws.

“In the federal government there are a lot of business rules that apply to staying at campgrounds, maybe RV length or length of stay,” DeLappe said. “Those need to be incorporated into API while making the reservation there.”

And when it comes to a transaction fee, Recreation.gov deposits money into the Treasury, DeLappe said.

“We don’t allow third parties to hang on to the government’s money and pay us later. We do it the other way around,” he said.

Lummis asked  DeLappe to provide her with information on federal regulations regarding third-parties to see whether having the option to work with them would make it even easier for people to use public lands.

By the numbers

Information provided by the Interior and Agriculture departments showed that in 2015:

  • More than 22.3 million sessions were logged on Recreation.gov
  • 12 million visitors came to Recreation.gov
  • Recreation.gov had 220 million page views (a 31 percent increase over 2014)

Today, the site hosts more than 3,200 individual facilities with more than 90,000 campsites, 12 ticketed tours or events and 26 locations accessed through permit or by lottery.