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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Defense (DOD) has a management framework to help oversee its existing ethics program and has initiated steps to establish such a framework to oversee its professionalism-related programs and initiatives, but its efforts could be strengthened in both areas.

  • DOD has a decentralized structure to administer and oversee its existing, required compliance-based ethics program, which focuses on ensuring adherence to rules. However, DOD has not fully addressed a 2008 internal recommendation to develop a department-wide values-based ethics program, which would emphasize ethical principles and decision-making to foster an ethical culture and achieve high standards of conduct. In 2012, DOD studied the design and implementation of a values-based ethics program and in 2013 delivered related training to certain DOD personnel. DOD has decided to take no further actions to establish a values-based ethics program, but it has not demonstrated that additional actions are unwarranted or assessed the feasibility of expanding training to additional personnel. As a result, the department neither has assurance that it has adequately addressed the identified need for a values-based ethics program nor has information needed to target its training efforts appropriately.
  • DOD established a 2-year, potentially renewable, position for a Senior Advisor for Military Professionalism, ending in March 2016, to oversee its professionalism-related efforts. Since 2014 the Advisor's office has identified and taken steps toward implementing some of its major tasks, which relate to coordinating and integrating DOD's efforts on professionalism. Professionalism relates to the values, ethics, standards, code of conduct, skills, and attributes of the military workforce. However, the office has not developed timelines or information to assess its progress in completing its major tasks. Thus, DOD does not have information to track the office's progress or assess whether the SAMP position should be retained after March 2016.

DOD has not fully implemented two key tools for identifying and assessing ethics and professionalism issues, and it has not developed performance metrics to measure its progress in addressing ethics-related issues. DOD has identified several tools, such as command climate and 360-degree assessments, that can be used to identify and assess ethics and professionalism issues. However, guidance issued by the military services for command climate assessments does not meet all statutory requirements and DOD guidance. As a result, the services do not have the required level of accountability during the performance evaluation process over the occurrence of these assessments, or assurances that all military personnel are able to anonymously participate in them. Further, the Navy, Marine Corps, and Joint Staff have developed and implemented 360-degree assessments for some but not all general and flag officers, and therefore some of these officers are not receiving valuable feedback on their performance as intended by DOD guidance. Finally, federal internal control standards emphasize the assessment of performance over time, but DOD is unable to determine whether its ethics and professionalism initiatives are achieving their intended effect because it has not developed metrics to measure their progress.

Why GAO Did This Study

Professionalism and sound ethical judgment are essential to executing the fundamental mission of DOD and to maintaining confidence in military leadership, but recent DOD and military service investigations have revealed misconduct related to, among other things, sexual behavior, bribery, and cheating.

House Report 113-446 included a provision for GAO to review DOD's ethics and professionalism programs for military servicemembers. This report examines the extent to which DOD has developed and implemented (1) a management framework to oversee its programs and initiatives on ethics and professionalism; and (2) tools and performance metrics to identify, assess, and measure progress in addressing ethics and professionalism issues. GAO analyzed DOD guidance and documents related to military ethics and professionalism, reviewed literature to identify ethics issues and practices, and interviewed DOD, industry, and foreign military officials experienced in implementing ethics and professionalism programs.

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Recommendations

GAO recommends DOD determine whether there is a need for a values-based program, assess the expansion of training, modify guidance, assess the use of a key tool for identifying ethics and professionalism issues, and develop performance metrics. DOD generally or partially concurred with these recommendations but did not agree to develop information to assess the Advisor's office. GAO continues to believe the recommendations are valid, as further discussed in the report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense 1. To promote and enhance familiarity with values-based ethical decision-making across the department, the Secretary of Defense should direct appropriate departmental organization(s), in consultation with the Office of General Counsel and the Senior Advisor for Military Professionalism (SAMP) or its successor organization(s), to assess the feasibility of expanding annual values-based ethics training to include currently non-mandatory recipients.
Closed - Implemented
DOD concurred with this recommendation. According to an April 2018 memorandum, DOD convened a working group in 2015 which subsequently obtained the views of the department's Designated Agency Ethics Officials on the feasibility of expanding values-based ethics training. As a result of this effort, the working group recommended that values-based training be extended to certain subsets of DOD employees, including front office staffs. By taking these actions, DOD has improved its ability to properly target values-based ethics training and identify opportunities to promote and enhance DOD employees' familiarity with values-based ethical decision-making.
Department of Defense 2. To ensure that the need for a department-wide values-based ethics program has been addressed, the Secretary of Defense should direct appropriate departmental organization(s), in consultation with the Office of General Counsel, to identify actions and timeframes for responding to the Panel on Contracting Integrity recommendation, including the 14 related 2012 study recommendations, or alternatively demonstrate why additional actions are unwarranted.
Closed - Implemented
DOD concurred with this recommendation. According to an April 2018 memorandum, DOD convened a working group in 2015 which examined the Panel's recommendation and each of the fourteen recommendations set forth in the study, determining that all or parts of 12 of the 14 recommendations were implemented, in the process of being implemented, or satisfied by existing policy and processes. With regard to the two recommendations that had not been acted upon, the working group concluded, among other things, that the structural changes suggested by one were not well aligned with statutory and regulatory authorities for compliance ethics, and that the other recommendation was determined to be sufficiently addressed by an existing DOD instruction. By taking these actions, DOD has greater assurance that the identified need for a values-based ethics program has been addressed.
Department of Defense 3. To help inform decision makers on the SAMP's progress as well as the decision regarding the extension of the SAMP's term, the Secretary of Defense should direct the SAMP to define timelines and measures to assess its progress in completing its major tasks.
Closed - Not Implemented
DOD did not concur with this recommendation, stating that the department would submit its Fiscal Year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act report on military programs and controls regarding professionalism to Congress on September 1, 2015, thereby satisfying the requirements of this recommendation. DOD confirmed its position with regard to this recommendation on October 19, 2015, but has not provided us with a copy of its report to Congress or other documentation to demonstrate that SAMP has defined timelines and measures to assess its progress. According to DOD, the SAMP office was disestablished after a November 2016 meeting of the Health of the Force Working Group, which determined that SAMP's goals had been achieved.
Department of Defense 4. To increase assurance that commanders are conducting command climate assessments in accordance with statutory requirements and departmental guidance, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretaries of the Air Force, the Army, and the Navy, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps to modify existing guidance or develop new guidance to comply with requirements set forth in the Fiscal Year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act and internal DOD guidance.
Open
DOD partially concurred with this recommendation, stating that existing Army practice is consistent with the intent of departmental guidance for command climate survey utilization. DOD confirmed its position with regard to this recommendation on October 19, 2015. As of September 16, 2020, DOD has not responded to further inquiries regarding any actions it has taken to implement this recommendation. When we confirm what actions DOD has taken, we will update the status of this recommendation.
Department of Defense 5. To better inform the department's approach to senior officers' professional development, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Navy, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to assess the need for and feasibility of implementing 360-degree assessments for all general and flag officers.
Open
DOD partially concurred with this recommendation, stating that it concurs with the recommendation to assess the need for and feasibility of implementing 360-degree assessments, or 360-degree-like feedback assessments, where they are not already being performed, but that it believes that it should only do so for general and flag officers at the three star ranks and below. DOD confirmed its position with regard to this recommendation on October 19, 2015. At that time, DOD also stated that it believes in a holistic approach to developing and assessing professionalism, noting, as an example, the Joint Staff's use of staff assistance visits and Senior Leader "roundtables" to complement the use of 360-degree assessments. In April 2018, DOD stated that each military department and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had implemented a 360-degree assessment requirement for all general and flag officers. As of September 16, 2020, DOD has not responded to inquiries regarding documentation in support of these actions. When we confirm what actions DOD has taken, we will update the status of this recommendation.
Department of Defense 6. To improve DOD's ability to assess its progress in addressing ethics and professionalism issues, the Secretary of Defense should direct the SAMP, through the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, or SAMP's successor organization(s), to identify information sources and develop intermediate goals and performance metrics. At minimum, these performance metrics should be clear, quantifiable, and objective, and they should include a baseline assessment of current performance.
Closed - Not Implemented
DOD concurred, with comment, with this recommendation, noting that the office of the Senior Advisor for Military Professionalism was a temporary office established by Secretary Hagel for a two year term ending no later than March of 2016. DOD confirmed its position with regard to this recommendation on October 19, 2015. In April 2018, DOD stated that each of the military services had developed specific programs to inculcate ethics and professionalism at all levels of the organization and at all levels of leadership, and identified some related accomplishments and investments. DOD did not respond to our inquiries for documentation that demonstrates it had identified information sources, intermediate goals, and performance metrics to assess SAMP's progress in addressing ethics and professionalism issues. According to DOD, the SAMP office was disestablished after a November 2016 meeting of the Health of the Force Working Group, which determined that SAMP's goals had been achieved.

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