Transitioning Veterans:

Improved Oversight Needed to Enhance Implementation of Transition Assistance Program

GAO-14-144: Published: Mar 5, 2014. Publicly Released: Mar 5, 2014.

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What GAO Found

The Departments of Defense (DOD), Labor (DOL), and Veterans Affairs (VA) have implemented most of the key components of the Transition Assistance Program (TAP), a gateway to information and services available to servicemembers transitioning to civilian life. However, the agencies are still in the process of implementing other key components of TAP. While originally planned for October 2013, agencies now plan to implement virtually all components by the end of March 2014, with full implementation expected by June 2014.

Agencies' efforts are underway to adequately address three of five elements that GAO identified as important for effective implementation and evaluation of TAP:

1-Track attendance : DOD has systems to collect and report on attendance, which help measure the extent to which TAP achieves its attendance goals.

2-Ensure training quality : The agencies collect and plan to use participant feedback on instruction, content, and facilities to improve training. Each agency also plans to monitor its respective TAP components through site visits.

3-Assess career readiness : The agencies developed standards to assess servicemembers' career readiness. During a capstone assessment, commanders are expected to verify and document whether standards were met.

Agencies' efforts to address the remaining two elements are mixed:

4-Ensure participation and completion : DOD has assigned commanders the responsibility for overseeing participation and has required the services to schedule training and communicate its importance to servicemembers. While the Army and Air Force gauge participation at the command level, the Navy and Marines lack a similar oversight mechanism.

5-Measure performance and evaluate results : The agencies have established certain measures to assess program performance, but their TAP evaluation approach is incomplete. For example, the agencies have established measures to track program outputs, such as the percentage of servicemembers who have participated in TAP. However, the agencies' efforts to evaluate TAP results have focused on basic end-of-course evaluations and gauging servicemembers' readiness prior to separation instead of higher impact program evaluations, such as assessing the effectiveness of TAP on servicemembers 6 months after they have separated from the military. According to agency officials, such evaluations are being considered for certain components of TAP, but they could not provide GAO with a justification for including or excluding specific components of TAP in their evaluation planning efforts.

Based on GAO's prior work and according to officials from the agencies and organizations GAO spoke with, a key remaining challenge for TAP may be the unfavorable timing and location of program delivery for National Guard and Reserve members. Unlike active duty servicemembers, National Guard and Reserve members receive TAP services closer to their transition and in locations that are generally neither where they work nor live. As a result, they may be distracted and have less time to benefit from TAP services. DOD is not well positioned to verify these concerns because it is not collecting data about these members' experiences with the timing and location of TAP service delivery.

Why GAO Did This Study

Over the next few years, over a million military servicemembers are expected to transition to civilian life and some may face challenges such as finding employment. To help them, TAP provides departing servicemembers employment assistance and information on VA benefits, among other things. Begun in 2011, efforts to revamp TAP are underway based on the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 and the administration's recommendations. The act also mandated GAO to review TAP. This report addresses: 1) the status of TAP implementation; 2) the extent to which elements of effective implementation and evaluation of TAP have been addressed; and 3) any challenges that may remain. To do this GAO identified five elements of effective implementation and evaluation based on relevant federal laws and previously established GAO criteria for training programs; reviewed related GAO work; assessed reports, plans, and policies provided by agencies that administer TAP; interviewed officials from entities that support servicemembers and veterans; and conducted four nongeneralizable discussion groups with servicemembers who had taken TAP at three military installations.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that DOD improve oversight and implementation of TAP, including actions to gauge participation for all of the services and collect data about National Guard and Reserve members' experiences. DOD disagreed with two of GAO's three recommendations. GAO continues to believe that the recommendations are needed as discussed in the report.

For more information, contact Andrew Sherrill at (202) 512-7215 or sherrilla@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: DOD disagreed with this recommendation, questioning GAO's concern that not having a mechanism to ensure a servicemember's completion of TAP by commander would result in commanders not supporting the release of servicemembers to attend TAP. DOD noted that our concern is based on observations that preceded full implementation of the capstone event. In October 2013, DOD launched the capstone as a mandatory process by which commanders verify TAP participation and positively affirm that servicemembers have or have not met career readiness standards. In addition, DOD said that capstone event implementation was accompanied by a communications campaign to inform both commanders and the services? TAP providers of this key requirement. Finally, DOD said that capstone event completion is monitored departmentwide to ensure compliance. However, GAO believes that such monitoring does not provide routine information to commanders and their leaders and not all TAP locations will be monitored routinely. Our report noted that DOD reported that ensuring servicemember participation in capstone events was a challenge for most of the services possibly due, in part, to lack of commanders' support. Commander support for the program has been a long-standing challenge for the program. Therefore, we continue to believe that an accountability mechanism is needed for TAP that mirrors the level at which responsibility has been assigned. Since commanders are responsible for ensuring that eligible servicemembers have full access to and successfully complete required TAP components, providing them and their leaders information on TAP participation levels of servicemembers under their command could promote accountability and oversight. Servicemember participation in TAP is generally required by law and DOD policy, and also relates to a Cross-Agency Priority Goal, reinforcing the for such a mechanism.

    Recommendation: To better ensure servicemember participation in and completion of TAP, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness to require that all services provide unit commanders and their leaders information on TAP participation levels of servicemembers under their command, similar to that provided by the Army and Air Force. Such information could be used to help hold leaders accountable for ensuring TAP participation and completion.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: DOD agreed to work with partner agencies to develop a written strategy for determining which components and tracks to evaluate and the most appropriate evaluation methods. DOD stated that it will continue to support interagency collaboration, which, as of January 31, 2014, has been formalized in a memorandum of understanding among the agencies administering TAP.

    Recommendation: To provide information on the extent to which the revamped TAP is effective, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness to work with the partner agencies to develop a written strategy for determining which components and tracks to evaluate and the most appropriate evaluation methods. This strategy should include a plan to use the results of evaluations to modify or redesign the program, as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: DOD disagreed with this recommendation, stating that it has long understood that the National Guard and Reserves operate under schedules and logistical constraints that differ from those of active duty servicemembers. Several processes (which we note in our report) are already in place to identity and rectify any misalignments between TAP services and the needs of eligible National Guard and Reserve members, including regular coordinating councils that include representation from the National Guard and Reserve and TAP managers, as well as a participant assessment that provides ample opportunity for eligible National Guard and Reserve members to voice concerns. In addition, DOD highlighted the implementation of the military life cycle transition model in which DOD plans to provide the services, including to the National Guard and Reserve, with the latitude to optimize placement of certain elements of TAP throughout a servicemember's military service. According to DOD, the military life cycle transition model may help address some of the challenges related to the timing and location of program delivery. As we note in the report, full implementation of the military life cycle transition model is planned by October 2014. Nonetheless, at this time DOD is not fully positioned to know whether or not the revamped program addresses the long-standing challenges facing eligible members of the National Guard and Reserve in taking TAP. As we describe in the report, all eligible servicemembers, including the National Guard and Reserve members, have an opportunity to provide feedback about the instruction, content, and facilities for TAP. However, the participant assessment does not ask questions specific to the National Guard and Reserve experience even though they face different circumstances than active duty servicemembers. Given these differences, we continue to believe that unless DOD systematically collects information on any challenges facing eligible members of the National Guard and Reserve, DOD is at risk of not fully knowing whether the revamped TAP addresses long-standing challenges. In addition, the move to a military life cycle transition model could enable active duty servicemembers and members of the National Guard and Reserve to benefit from transition-related assistance throughout their military service. Recognizing that the military life cycle transition model is not implemented and specific policies and plans are not completed, many unknowns remain about how it will work in general and how National Guard and Reserve members will fare specifically.

    Recommendation: To ensure that decisions about the participation of eligible members of the National Guard and Reserves in TAP are fully informed, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness to systematically collect information on any challenges facing demobilizing members of the National Guard and Reserves regarding the logistics of the timing and location to attend TAP. For example, agencies might add questions to their online assessment tool specific to eligible members of the National Guard and Reserves who participate in TAP.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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