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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Defense's (DOD) policies on sexual harassment include some but not all of the Centers for Disease Control's (CDC) principles for preventing sexual violence and include most relevant legislative elements. GAO identified six principles from CDC's framework for preventing sexual violence, which CDC defines as including sexual harassment. GAO found that Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and military service policies generally include CDC's principles regarding prevention strategies, but none address risk and protective factors, which identify conditions or behaviors that might heighten or lower the risk of sexual harassment victimization or perpetration, respectively. Additionally, a statutory provision in fiscal year 2013 mandated that DOD, among other things, develop a comprehensive sexual harassment policy that includes prevention training, mechanisms for anonymous reporting, and mechanisms for resolving incidents of sexual harassment. OSD and service policies are generally consistent with those required elements except for the inclusion of anonymous reporting. DOD is developing a new department-wide policy that will address sexual harassment, but it is too early to determine how the policy will address these issues. Without policies that include CDC's principles and mechanisms for anonymous reporting, DOD may miss opportunities to address and potentially reduce incidents of unwanted sexual behaviors. Finally, a statutory change in fiscal year 2017 redefined sexual harassment for certain purposes so it is no longer defined solely as a form of sex discrimination but is recognized also as an adverse behavior on the spectrum of behavior that can contribute to an increase in the incidence of sexual assault. While officials indicated a need to update policies, they were unclear on the full implications, if any, of this change.

DOD has processes for maintaining and reporting consistent data on incidents of unwanted sexual behaviors including sexual assault and incidents of domestic violence that involve sexual assault, but does not have similar processes for maintaining and reporting data on incidents of sexual harassment. Specifically, DOD uses centralized databases to maintain and report data on incidents of sexual assault and domestic violence that involve sexual assault, but relies on military service-specific databases for information on incidents of sexual harassment. DOD has not established standard data elements and definitions to guide the services in maintaining and reporting data on sexual harassment. Inconsistencies in data elements and definitions generally mean that one service may be maintaining data that is more or less detailed than, or that differs from, the data maintained by other services. Such inconsistencies may create difficulties in reporting department-wide sexual harassment data, since the individual service data must be adapted to fit reporting requirements.

DOD has several overarching efforts to address unwanted sexual behaviors across the continuum of harm, including developing an overarching prevention strategy. However, it is unclear whether the strategy under development will contain key elements for long-term and results-oriented strategic planning such as long-term goals, strategies to achieve goals, and metrics to gauge progress. Without incorporating these elements into its overarching prevention strategy, DOD may not be in a position to effectively coordinate and integrate prevention activities and reduce instances of unwanted sexual behaviors.

Why GAO Did This Study

Unwanted sexual behaviors in the military—including sexual harassment, sexual assault, and domestic violence involving sexual assault—undermine core values, unit cohesion, combat readiness, and public goodwill. Recent studies suggest that these behaviors are part of a “continuum of harm,” which DOD defines as a range of interconnected, inappropriate behaviors that are connected to the occurrence of sexual assault and that support an environment that tolerates these behaviors.

Senate Report 114-255 included a provision for GAO to review efforts by DOD to prevent unwanted sexual behaviors in the military. GAO assessed the extent to which DOD has (1) policies on sexual harassment that include CDC principles and relevant legislative elements; (2) processes for maintaining and reporting consistent data on incidents of unwanted sexual behaviors; and (3) overarching efforts, including a prevention strategy, to address unwanted sexual behaviors across the continuum of harm. GAO reviewed DOD policies and pertinent databases, and interviewed agency officials.

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Recommendations

GAO recommends that DOD fully include in its new policy on sexual harassment CDC's principles for sexual violence prevention and mechanisms for anonymous reporting, develop standard data elements and definitions for reporting sexual harassment incidents, and incorporate in its overarching prevention strategy elements key for a long-term, results-oriented strategy. DOD generally concurred with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense The Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness should fully include in the new policy for sexual harassment the principles in the Centers for Disease Control's framework for sexual violence prevention, including risk and protective factors, risk domains, and tertiary strategies. (Recommendation 1)
Closed - Implemented
In written comments on the draft report, DOD concurred with this recommendation. In April 2020, officials with the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness stated that development of a new sexual harassment prevention strategy was complete and going through DOD's internal review process. In May 2021, DOD's Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI) issued its Harassment Prevention Strategy which includes principles from the Centers for Disease Control's framework for sexual violence prevention, including risk and protective factors, risk domains, and tertiary strategies. These actions will help DOD to address and potentially reduce incidents of sexual harassment in the military.
Department of Defense
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness should include in the new policy for sexual harassment mechanisms for anonymous reporting of incidents consistent with section 579 of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2013. (Recommendation 2)
Closed - Implemented
In our December 2017 report, Sexual Violence: Actions Needed to Improve DOD's Efforts to Address the Continuum of Unwanted Sexual Behaviors (GAO-18-33), we found that, DOD's sexual harassment policy did not include a process for anonymous reporting of incidents, an element required by section 579 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013. In our report we stated that, without including anonymous reporting of sexual harassment complaints in DOD's sexual harassment policy, the statutory requirement for anonymous reporting may be interpreted and applied inconsistently throughout the military services, or left unmet. Accordingly, we recommended that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness should include in its policy for sexual harassment mechanisms for anonymous reporting of incidents consistent with section 579 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013. In commenting on this recommendation, DOD concurred and stated that, the department will include these mechanisms in a forthcoming comprehensive policy on harassment. In February 2018, DOD published instruction 1020.03, Harassment Prevention and Response in the Armed Forces. The instruction defines what constitutes an anonymous complaint; updates procedures for service members to submit an anonymous complaint; establishes requirements for responding to, processing, resolving, tracking, and reporting harassment complaints, including anonymous complaints; and establishes training and education requirements and standards that include anonymous complaints. These actions will improve DOD's efforts to prevent and respond to instances of harassment in the armed forces.
Department of Defense
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness should (1) direct the Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity to develop standard data elements and definitions for maintaining and reporting information on sexual harassment incidents at the military service level, and (2) direct the military services to incorporate these data elements and definitions into their military service-specific databases. (Recommendation 3)
Closed - Implemented
In our December 2017 report , Sexual Violence: Actions Needed to Improve DOD's Efforts to Address the Continuum of Unwanted Sexual Behaviors (GAO-18-33 ), we found that DOD has processes for maintaining and reporting consistent data on incidents of unwanted sexual behaviors including sexual assault and incidents of domestic violence that involve sexual assault, but does not have similar processes for maintaining and reporting data on incidents of sexual harassment . We also found that DOD has not established standard data elements and definitions to guide the military services in maintaining and reporting data on sexual harassment . We stated that inconsistencies in data elements and definitions generally mean that one service may be maintaining data that is more or less detailed than, or that differs from, the data maintained by other services. Such inconsistencies may create difficulties in reporting department-wide sexual harassment data, since the individual service data must be adapted to fit reporting requirements . Accordingly, we recommended that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness direct the Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity to (1) develop standard data elements and definitions for maintaining and reporting information on sexual harassment incidents at the military service level , and (2) direct the military services to incorporate these data elements and definitions into their military service-specific databases. In commenting on this recommendation, DOD partially concurred and stated that the Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity will conduct a review to determine compliance with DOD reporting requirements and identify emerging policy modifications or changes/additions to standard definitions. In February 2018 , DOD published instruction 1020.03, Harassment Prevention and Response in the Armed Forces . The instruction establishes that the secretaries of the military departments will annually report data through a DOD approved automated data collection interface that will include, at a minimum, data elements such as the type of complaint , the demographics of the complainant and alleged offender , the relationship between the complainant and the alleged offender at the time of the incident , a narrative description of the alleged incident , the location of the alleged incident , and the timeline of events from the date of complaint to final disposition, and reason for any delays . These actions will enable DOD to better track and report on instances of harassment in the armed forces.
Department of Defense The Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness should direct the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness to incorporate in its continuum of harm prevention strategy all the elements that are key for establishing a long-term, results-oriented strategic planning framework. The elements are (1) a mission statement, (2) long-term goals, (3) strategies to achieve goals, (4) external factors that could affect goals, (5) use of metrics to gauge progress, and (6) evaluations of the plan to monitor goals and objectives. (Recommendation 4)
Open
In written comments on the draft report, DOD concurred with this recommendation. According to officials with the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, development of a new prevention strategy is complete and going through DOD's internal review process. In May 2021, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness published DOD's harassment prevention strategy. DOD officials told us that this May 2021 strategy is partly in response to this recommendation of what to incorporate in its continuum of harm prevention strategy. In reviewing DOD's strategy, we found that it includes some elements of a results-oriented strategic framework, such as a mission statement and long-term goals. However, we found that it did not include elements such as objectives or strategies to accomplish goals, external factors that could affect goals, an evaluation plan to monitor goals and objectives, and performance metrics, and that the harassment prevention strategy does not constitute a continuum of harm prevention strategy, as we recommended. In September 2021, we received new information about DOD's progress in developing a continuum of harm prevention strategy and we are following up with DOD officials to determine whether their efforts will address our recommendation. We will update the status of this recommendation as more information becomes available.

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