Transitioning Veterans:

DOD Needs to Improve Performance Reporting and Monitoring for the Transition Assistance Program

GAO-18-23: Published: Nov 8, 2017. Publicly Released: Nov 8, 2017.

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What GAO Found

In fiscal year 2016, the Department of Defense (DOD) lacked data for 48 percent of National Guard and Reserve members and 12 percent of active duty servicemembers which resulted in DOD potentially misstating performance of the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) in its public reporting. Under the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011, DOD must require that all eligible separating servicemembers participate in TAP, with some exceptions. However, the VOW Act compliance rates that DOD publicly reported were not based on all eligible servicemembers—they excluded servicemembers for whom DOD lacked data. For example, had DOD included all transitioning National Guard and Reserve members—including those for whom they lacked participation data—the resulting participation rate for Guard and Reserve members may have been as low as 47 percent instead of 94 percent, which DOD publicly reported in fiscal year 2016. In November 2016, DOD launched a new data collection system that officials say will improve data completeness and reporting abilities.

In fiscal year 2016, DOD met its goal of 85 percent of active duty servicemembers (i.e., not members of the National Guard and Reserves) who met VOW Act requirements and attained Career Readiness Standards, according to GAO's analysis. In order to complete TAP, servicemembers generally must participate in three required courses and have their Career Readiness Standards verified by a unit commander or designee. In addition, commanders or their designee must ensure that servicemembers who do not meet these standards are referred to staff of partner agencies, such as the Department of Labor and Department of Veterans Affairs, for additional services, commonly called a “warm handover.” However, fewer than half of all eligible servicemembers completed TAP on time—90 days or more before separation.

Percent of Servicemembers Who Completed Required Transition Assistance Program (TAP) Activities, within Selected Time Frames, Fiscal Year 2016

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DOD monitors several key areas of TAP implementation, such as TAP participation and career readiness standards rates, but not others, including timeliness of participation in required courses and access to additional classes. Regulations require DOD to ensure that servicemembers complete TAP more than 90 days before leaving the military but DOD has not monitored timeliness because it has focused on ensuring participation. Federal law also requires DOD to ensure that servicemembers who want to attend additional 2-day classes, such as on higher education, can do so. However, DOD does not require the services to document the extent to which servicemembers can access these classes. Unless DOD monitors these and other TAP requirements, it cannot ensure they have been met.

Why GAO Did This Study

Since fiscal year 2015, hundreds of thousands of servicemembers have left the military and transitioned into civilian life, with hundreds of thousands more soon to follow. To help ease their transition, pursuant to federal law DOD must require that all eligible separating servicemembers take TAP, with some exceptions. GAO's previous work on TAP implementation showed mixed results, and GAO was asked to re-examine the program.

This report examines, among other questions: 1) the extent of transparency in DOD's public performance reporting, 2) TAP participation levels and attainment of Career Readiness Standards or referrals for additional services, and 3) DOD's TAP monitoring and performance measures.

GAO surveyed all 181 installations that conduct TAP and achieved a 100 percent response rate; analyzed TAP data from fiscal year 2016; visited seven installations that reflected diversity in service, size, and geography; compared DOD's performance measures to GAO criteria; reviewed federal laws and regulations, and interviewed TAP staff, servicemembers, and DOD officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO makes six recommendations, including that DOD improve transparency in reporting TAP participation and career readiness rates and monitor certain key areas of TAP implementation. DOD generally agreed with all but the one on access to additional 2-day classes. GAO believes this recommendation is still valid as discussed in the report.

For more information, contact Cindy S. Barnes at (202) 512-7215 or brownbarnesc@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On its public website, DOD posted compliance data regarding participation and career readiness for all TAP-eligible servicemembers and members of the National Guard and Reserve rather than excluding those for whom data were missing. Data for the first two quarters of fiscal year 2018 were publicly posted to its website during the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2018.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should publicly report DOD's performance regarding participation and career readiness attainment for all TAP-eligible servicemembers and members of the National Guard and Reserve rather than exclude those for whom data are missing or clarify the extent of missing data. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2019, DOD enhanced its electronic system for tracking TAP participation so that military department TAP representatives can monitor and share a report by unit to commanders. This report shows the extent to which transitioning servicemembers are complying with requirements under the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011. It also shows the unit's compliance with Section 552 if fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (Modernization of TAP), which requires that DOD ensure transitioning and retiring servicemembers begin TAP at least 365 days prior to separating or retiring from the military. The report also informs commanders of the number of days spent in "transition," from pre-separation counseling to the discharge date. According to DOD, installation TAP Managers will use the report to engage installation leadership in supporting the amount of time a Service member will require to transition.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should monitor and report on the extent to which servicemembers participate in TAP within prescribed timeframes. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD added questions to its voluntary TAP participant assessment instrument to gauge whether servicemembers who wanted to attend 2-day classes in a classroom setting were able to do so. Servicemembers who indicated they had wanted to attend a 2-day class in a classroom setting but were unable to do so were asked in a follow-up question to identify the barrier to participation they had experienced, such as their duty station being too far away from where the class was being offered, the class being offered at a time they could not attend, not being allowed time away from their duty station to attend, being encouraged to take the class online rather than in a classroom, or personal preference or convenience, among others. According to DOD officials, the information gathered from these questions will be tracked quarterly and provided to partners at all levels. DOD analyzed data from the second quarter of FY18 and briefed the interagency Transition Assistance Interagency Working Group in June 2018, according to DOD officials. They also said that a report will be provided at least once a year to the interagency TAP governance group.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should monitor and report on the extent to which servicemembers who elect to receive additional 2-day classes are able to receive the training. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD agreed with this recommendation. According to DOD officials, as of August 1, 2018, DOD's online TAP training portal, Joint Knowledge Online has added a question for all servicemembers accessing all modules online. The added question gathers information on why the servicemember attended TAP online instead of in a classroom setting. The question is asked at the start of each module. The responses are provided to the Transition to Veterans Program Office monthly, and program officials analyze the results and share them with military department service representatives. The results are also shared with the interagency TAP governance structure.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should monitor and report on the extent to which servicemembers attend TAP in a classroom setting unless allowed by regulation to participate online. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD agreed with this recommendation and developed a summary report for unit commanders and their higher-level commanders to help ensure the specific units they oversee are compliant with TAP requirements. For example, the report shows the extent to which individual commanders are ensuring that servicemembers under their command complete TAP more than 90 days before leaving the military, as required by DOD policy. The report also show which servicemembers opt to participate in additional tracks, such as Accessing Higher Education and Entrepreneurship.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should enable unit commanders and their higher-level commanders to access DOD reports on timeliness, 2-day classes, and the use of online TAP--after DOD begins monitoring and reporting this information--to help ensure the specific units they oversee are compliant with all TAP requirements. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD agreed with this recommendation. According to DOD officials, DOD worked with the Department of Labor to develop a checklist to guide TAP counselor's' review of draft resumes. The purpose of the checklist is to minimize subjectivity in assessing servicemembers' resumes and career readiness. In addition, the Transition Assistance Interagency Working Group, which includes military department representatives, has developed a uniform self-assessment to help ensure the transitioning servicemember receives a consistent assessment of career readiness at each installation. According to DOD officials, the tool was initially developed in response to this GAO recommendation, and was subsequently expanded to reflect requirements mandated by the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which directed that specific items be included in the self-assessment tool. DOD officials said the tool is effective October 2019.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should seek ways to minimize the subjectivity involved in making career readiness determinations, particularly where judgments are involved, such as the quality of the individual transition plan and the resume. This could include developing guidance or training that provides quality standards for assessing career readiness materials. (Recommendation 6)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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